I’d never saddle him with the phrase “writer’s writer”–he was too popular and acclaimed for that even if he somehow never achieved the status of some of his contemporaries–but it’s hard to think of a contemporary writer as universally beloved among my peers. Many of us never even knew we wanted to be writers until someone passed us one of his books like a holy scripture. It didn’t matter if you were a surrealist, a dirty realist, a poet or a reporter. Denis Johnson spoke to everyone.
Denis Johnson will be best remembered for his gorgeous and deranged Jesus’ Son, a series of loosely connected stories about drug addicts in middle America that somehow feels like it sums up America in all its ugly and beautiful contradictions. But his skills were multifaceted, and his body of work is full of gems. His 2007 epic about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, won the National Book Award. His 2012 novella Train Dreams is frequently talked about as one of the best books of the last few decades. (The latter was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer prize, along with works by David Foster Wallace and Karen Russell, in the year the Pulitzer board absurdly decided not to issue a prize for fiction). Johnson was also an accomplished poet and and brilliant reporter. Seek, his collection of essays and journalism that span African war zones to Christian biker rallies, is essential reading for any aspiring journalist.
What can be said about Denis Johnson’s words? His sentences were as alive as snakes, full of wriggling and creepy momentum. They wanted to pull something out of you, whether it be tears, blood or maybe just laughter. Reading them was like remembering the tune to an old sad song your lover used to hum before everything went wrong.
Oh, I shouldn’t write like this. Johnson was no purple poet or obtuse postmodernist. He wrote in a style of poetic minimalism that managed to be both straight-forward and dreamlike, both gritty and ethereal. Here, in “Work,” he describes young lovers in hailstorm:
A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards? We put on our clothes, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.
It’s rare that I agree with Jonathan Franzen but I can only nod when he says, “The god I want to believe in has a voice and sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.”. More than any other writer, Johnson had the ability to sum up the wonder, terribleness, and absurdity of life all at once. Here is another of my favorite passages, when the narrator of Jesus’ Son, Fuckhead, is in a hospital after a car crash. I haven’t read it in a decade and still remember every word:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
Above all, Johnson was a writer for the weirdos. He wrote for and about the drop-outs, the druggies, the punks, the outkasts, and the sinners. That was true from his first novel, Angels, about a runway mom and an ex-con traveling on Greyhound buses. The outcasts at the edge of America remained the focus of his career.
“All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them,” the narrator of Jesus’ Son says. “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
I think that’s why we loved him so much. Writers are all outcasts in one way or another, or at least fancy ourselves as such, and we can’t imagine there is a place for us until we read something like Jesus’ Son.
There are actually tears dripping down my half-awake face as I write this. Those who know me, know I never cry. And I never even met the man. I don’t think Johnson would mind though. Author Kelly Luce wrote about his introduction to her class “he told us he was a crier. But we shouldn’t worry, it usually passed quick. He cried three times that semester” including once “over how hard writing is, always, but how beautiful to get it right.” Luce shared another anecdote that seemed to sum up the way Johnson saw the world, both on the page and off:
One day he brought in two metal balls and made us all hold them and decide which was heavier. The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard. Denis was DELIGHTED by this. […] He was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement at how much more our minds knew than our brains. It was awkward & odd & exciting. And he never said, like, “This is like writing,” or anything like that. He was just awestruck and wanted to show us.
Anecdotes about Denis Johnson always seem to present him as being as strange and wonderful as his writing. Michael Hafford, my editor at playboy, writes:
Something strange that happened to me was, while wasting a summer in Idaho, I discovered that Denis Johnson lived a town over. This girl I was talking to knew a guy that had emailed Denis out of the blue and asked if he could help Denis work around the house. So this guy, a lawyer, spent all summer cutting wood and helping Denis do things like repair his gutters. Something about that seemed so apt, that this writer of great drug tragedies would be living out his later years hanging around in Idaho letting lawyers fix his gutters.
The other thing, the one that really stuck with me, was this train I would hear. Every half hour at night, a train would blow its horn as it passed my town heading toward Denis’. That was the train from Train Dreams. It had to be.
Johnson studied writing at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshops, taking class with Raymond Carver among others, and later taught there and other universities. Those who knew him recall a heart as big as his fiction. He was beloved as a teacher and a friend.
“Studying with Denis Johnson was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” the novelist Alexander Chee tweeted last night, echoing so many others in my social media feeds today.
The poet Christopher Kennedy shared a private message that Denis Johnson had sent him after a mutual friend had passed away. I asked him I could share the quote, which seems to sum up his beauty and power in such a way that it feels right to end on:
Shit shit shit. Kiss your dog and give him a steak sandwich, or whatever he likes, because this ride is short, and our fellow travelers are precious. My love to you, my brother. DJ
Or else maybe I can end with a quote from his poem “Our Sadness,” a poem I’ve returned to year after year, and feels painfully right after his passing.
And when it comes time
for all of humanity to witness what it’s done
and every television is trained on the first people to see God and
we have ignition,
they won’t have ignition.
They’ll have a music of wet streets
and lonely bars where piano notes
follow themselves into a forest of pity and are lost.
They’ll have sadness.
sadness, sadness, sadness.
Goodbye, Mr. Johnson. Thank you for making a place for us in the world.
playboy has republished Nobody Move, Johnson’s noir serial in four parts in honor of his passing.