Remembering Denis Johnson

Photo: Photo: Cindy Johnson/Courtesy of FSG

It’s difficult to write about being fucked-up on drugs because the point for the user is the experience of the derangement not the telling of it. The high, the comedown, the forgetting. Then the getting on with life, which for the addict means the next high, but even so. It’s not what people want to hear about, and any attempt to romanticize it courts embarrassment. That’s why there’s so very little great drug writing in our literature. You can count it out on your hand: Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm; the early novels of William S. Burroughs; Bruce J. Friedman’s cocaine story “Lady”; all the addicts in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, especially Madame Psychosis in the bathroom; the relentless cataloguing of powders and pills in Tao Lin’s Taipei. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City is more memorable for the narrator’s failing marriage and his lousy job as a fact-checker at a fictionalized New Yorker than for the Bolivian marching powder — it’s a sideshow, an occasion for him to ask if he’s really that kind of person. Nobody is until they are. You learn the same thing from two exemplary recent books about heroin addiction: Michael W. Clune’s memoir White Out and Jade Sharma’s Problems. But we haven’t seen anything lately that approaches the work of Denis Johnson, who died on Wednesday of liver cancer at age 67, and we aren’t likely to anytime soon. As Fuckhead, the narrator of the stories in Jesus’ Son, the 1992 collection that’s Johnson’s masterpiece, says of his days as a pill-popping hospital orderly given to misadventures on the highway: “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”

Now it’s gone for good. It’s hard to avoid asking the question, Was Fuckhead really Denis Johnson? We know he spent the 1970s — his 20s — as an alcoholic and those were his days of doing drugs, and that he progressively cleaned up first from alcohol and then from drugs by the early 1980s when he became a novelist with Angels (he’d been a published poet since he was 19). The stories in Jesus’ Son — I want to punch a wall whenever I hear them called “vignettes,” though they don’t contradict the dictionary definition — have both an undeniably personal feel and the indelible power of myth. That power is in the book’s relentless succession of singular images. That the narrator and many of the characters spend the book drunk, high, cranked up, or burnt out is just the fabric of reality in their fictional world. The last thing they’d do is wonder whether they’re that kind of person, which isn’t to deny that the arc of the book bends toward recovery and redemption, of a sort. Johnson himself spent the past four decades teaching creative writing all over the place, by all accounts generously, and being a father, homeschooling his children in Arizona and Idaho.

In “Emergency,” the story of the world now rolled up in a scroll, those images include the blood on the floor of the operating room in the opening scene that the orderlies have to clean up (“Georgie dropped his mop and bent over in the posture of a child soiling its diapers. He stared down with his mouth open in terror. // He said, ‘What am I going to do about these fucking shoes, man?’”); a man who walks into a hospital with a knife sticking handle-out from his left eye, stabbed by his wife in his sleep for peeping on a neighbor (he will be saved by Georgie, the orderly who pulls the knife out while routinely cleaning him up); the famous drug guru being interviewed at the county fair (“His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has”); the eight finger-size baby rabbits Georgie saves from the corpse of their mother, now roadkill, that Fuckhead kills by rolling over on them in the cab of Georgie’s orange pickup truck (“Georgie asked, ‘Does everything you touch turn to shit? Does this happen to you every time?’ // No wonder they call me Fuckhead. // It’s a name that’s going to stick. // I realize that. // ‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave”). That’s not to mention the drive-in theater seen through a September blizzard (“Famous movie stars rode bicycles beside a river, laughing out of their gigantic, lovely mouths”), the military graveyard, and the lonely hitchhiker trying to get to Canada to escape the draft. “Emergency” is an unforgettable story, though I often forget that it’s just one story. How could you fit the guy with the knife in his eye and the dying baby rabbits into the same piece of short fiction?

Johnson’s was the art of compression, of lyrical density, and he’s one of the few prose writers, as John Jeremiah Sullivan once demonstrated in a review for Harper’s, who wrote paragraphs of fiction that could be broken up into lines and stand as poetry. Sullivan was reviewing Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s 2007 Vietnam novel that won the National Book Award. It’s a messy, uneven book with more than its share of theoretical digressions, but you forgive overstuffed novels when half of what they’re stuffed with is brilliance, beginning in Tree of Smoke with the killing of a monkey in a jungle in the Philippines, the sort of overture a writer delivers at the beginning of a novel that will make the reader acquiesce to going wherever the author wants to take us.

A new Johnson collection is in the offing, including some stories never before published. It will also carry “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” a standout in Ben Marcus’s recent anthology New American Stories. Reviewing that book, I thought that Johnson was still as in control of the story form as he was when he wrote Jesus’ Son and called “Largesse” “a compendium of indelible moments from an aging adman’s life, the most powerful of which comes first: a woman bending to kiss the stump where a veteran amputee’s leg used to be and then breaking out in tears.” The new book will surely deepen our understanding of his art and send us back past Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son, to his many novels of the 1980s; to his poetry and plays; to the gorgeous Western novella Train Dreams, which along with The Pale King was denied a Pulitzer in 2012 when the committee decided not to give out the prize; to the nonfiction collected in Seek, including his account of going to Liberia to find Charles Taylor; and to his last book, The Laughing Monsters, a reimagining of the American noir set in Africa. I’m going back first to Angels. A friend of mine sent me a line from it this afternoon: “But that was just a story, something that people will tell themselves, something to pass the time it takes for the violence inside a man to wear him away.”

Remembering Denis Johnson