In Memoriam: Denis Johnson

In Memoriam: Denis Johnson

I am deeply saddened to have learned that Denis Johnson has died. I’m not one to care much when famous people die, but anyone who knows me on any intimate level knows that Johnson is my absolute favourite writer of all time. I’ve never been the type to have heroes—always sneered at the idea out of some misplaced sense of pride, actually—but Denis Johnson was an exception.

I first came across Johnson’s writing not that long ago. It was 2015, and I had just moved to Australia. I was browsing in a bookstore when I picked up Resuscitation of a Hanged Man because of its striking cover, and then bought it because of the blurb:

In the bleak of November, Lenny English drifts into the Cape Cod resort of Provincetown. Recovering from a recent suicide attempt, his soul suspended in its own off-season, he takes a job as a third-shift disk jockey, with a little private detective work on the side for his boss. As Lenny falls in love with a beautiful young local, a woman whose sexual orientation should preclude the affair, he soon begins his first assignment, a search for a missing painter whose personal history seems to mirror his own. In pursuit of the artist—and love, and redemption—Lenny will resort to great and desperate measures to revive himself, and his faith in the world.

Recovering from my own desire to be dead, the blurb spoke to me. I bought the book. That night, I read it through in a single sitting. I was hooked from the first few sentences:

He came there in the off-season. So much was off. All bets were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn’t have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off.

Like Lenny, I was living in a perpetual off-season I couldn’t escape. Like Lenny, I would resort to great and desperate measures to revive myself and my faith in the world. And like Lenny, I met a woman who helped make that a possibility. resus

Lenny English is perhaps the most pathetic character in all of literary fiction because he is so goddamn real. A middle-aged mess with no sense of self, he is as alienated and confused as Travis Bickle, but as emotionally sensitive as a child. Even after all the Johnson I’ve read—and I’ve read it all—I view Lenny as the most honest and vulnerable self-portrait of Johnson himself. It’s not that English was like Johnson, exactly, more like Johnson’s greatest fear.

Johnson had a truly unique way with black humour, so much so that it goes over the heads of most people who read him. Browse the reviews section of the Goodreads page for Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, for example, and you will see review after review criticizing the unrelentingly bleak worldview the novel portrays. These people have totally misunderstood the book. Resuscitation is a hilarious anti-hardboiled neo-noir in which an increasingly desperate and pathetically lonely man continually finds new and novel ways to sabotage his own happiness. Lenny English is a clown without a costume, a man without an identity of his own, one petrified of the world and the people it attempts to contain. Lenny English is all of us every time we read a horrific news story and shudder at the thought of such monstrous people living among us; Lenny is all of us every time we make a total fool of ourselves in front of that girl we like; Lenny is all of us every time we feel totally, utterly alone. He is hilarious and desperately saddening in equal measure. It breaks your heart to witness his continuous and inevitable social failure, but it is so damn funny, too. And make no mistake, Johnson was laughing at himself as much as he was laughing at all of us.

No one on this planet can write with such stark and terrible beauty as Denis Johnson did. He reached into his characters and pulled out their insatiable thirst for something more, their relentless need to feel alive while simultaneously knowing they are totally insignificant, such as in this extract from Resuscitation:

“But why is it you?” she asked him. “Why isn’t it somebody else?”—and he knew what she meant, he understood that nobody mattered, that love was just making love, calling to itself out of the void, and they might be kissing, they might be touching, they might be lying face to face and staring at each other in wonder, but there was nobody home—nobody but love, so why is it you? Couldn’t it be anybody? Only you, Leanna, only your lips of fever and moss, and don’t ever let it stop. Only you. You’re the only nobody for this nothing in the world.

Or this one from his seminal short story collection Jesus’ Son:

I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

Widely regarded as a masterpiece of modern literature, Jesus’ Son chronicles several short episodes in the life of a nameless drug addict and the dreamers and lost souls he encounters. A work of harsh and devastating beauty, it plunges a hand into your chest and grabs hold of your heart. It is both bleak and hilarious, relentless and graceful, and totally unapologetic. (Read a Poets & Writers article on the enduring appeal of Jesus’ Son.) Johnson once made the claim that it was the easiest thing he’d ever written because he simply recounted his own memories, implying that the book is largely auto-biographical. This makes sense; Johnson began his journey into alcoholism at 14 years old. He was at the psych ward for alcohol for the first time by age 21. Heroin addiction followed. In his own words, ‘I was addicted to everything.’ Few people have lived a life so full, unusual, adventurous and flat-out difficult as Denis Johnson did.

jesusThe narrator of Jesus’ Son (‘Fuckhead’ is the closest we ever get to a name) is not a good man. He is a coward and a liar, selfish and pitiful. But he is alienated from absolutely everyone, and he is in pain. His mind is at once clouded and made brilliantly lucid by the drugs he consumes so ravenously. Consider these two paragraphs (from different stories) about an old girlfriend Fuckhead mentions:

I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.

When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother.

(You can read the hilarious and brilliant story ‘Emergency’ from Jesus’ Son in full at Narrative Magazine.)

Ultimately, Denis Johnson wrote of beauty. Sometimes it was the beauty in the ugliness of the world and its people, sometimes it was the beauty in the tarnished and forgotten. But sometimes it was the beauty in the timeless and the obvious, such as in the novella Train Dreams, which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer. Train Dreams is another masterpiece. An exquisite and flawless mini-epic telling the tale of the life of simple man Robert Grainer in the American West at the turn of the 20th century, it is also the tale of America herself. As the New York Times wrote, ‘It’s a love story, a hermit’s story . . . It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.’ Not a single word is wasted in the book. It is as tight and perfect as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but with more heart than a blue whale. Train Dreams is a work of truly breathtaking beauty. It is the kind of book that you will never, ever forget. Robert and his sad and lonely life and all the tiny moments of beauty and wonder it contained will haunt you forever, and remind you that this life of wonder, beauty and tragedy will indeed end, just as it now has for Johnson.

Denis Johnson also happened to be one of the most daring and reckless people who ever lived. He wrote nonfiction about some of the most dangerous and extreme people and places in the world, living among and in them for the story. Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond contains 13 pieces, each one about a different group of people or situation. 3 report on insane violence and mayhem in Africa—two on the Civil War in Liberia (circa early 1990s) and the third on Somalia around the time of the withdrawal of United Nations forces (1995). Other subjects include a Rainbow Gathering in the Ochoco National Forest (mid-1990s); the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally near Fort Worth, catering to ‘Bikers for Jesus’; the search in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the fugitive terrorist bomber Eric Robert Rudolph; the First Gulf War from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. And, as always, the writing is absolutely stunning. Consider the first paragraph of a report from Kabul, shortly after the Taliban had captured it:

The dogs hear the jets before they arrive overhead, so you get the dogs barking, the dogs yammering, every dog in the city of Kabul protesting the violence that approaches, then the shock waves of bomb blasts rubbing the windows, then the lights of the antiaircraft—some like red droplets whipped from a wand, others floating up like orange bubbles and bursting into smoky flares, and blinding, winking muzzle-bursts in the hills like a single light racing madly back and forth, and Stinger missiles rising on crimson tracers–all, for the first several seconds, in absolute silence; and then the distant knocking noises and little pops like ice cubes in a drink, no bigger than that, until nearer positions start up loudly enough to knock a person off a chair.

Johnson wrote more nonfiction, novels, and novellas, as well as entire poetry collections and plays. Each and every sentence is majestic. I would gladly go through every one of them, but there is no need. They exist in the world—go out and buy one. Become infatuated with the man’s use of language, sharp wit, and unique perspective. angels

I gave my copy of Denis Johnson’s novel Angels to someone once. It’s a sad and deeply entertaining tale of two luckless losers—an alcoholic man and a wife fleeing with her two kids—who meet on a Greyhound bus and spiral further and further from anything that resembles safety as they fall into a desperate and hopeless romance. It is in its heart, like Train Dreams, a story of love. To the person I gave it to, it probably came across as a simple gift of a book, but it was much more than that. It was an attempt to share with them a work of art that changed me profoundly and irrevocably; a work of art that engulfed me as I engulfed it. I was giving a piece of myself, hoping, ultimately, that they might see some shred of the very essence of me seared into its pages, and, eventually, join me in there, along with Johnson himself. Because no one became a part of their art quite so honestly and unapologetically as Denis Johnson.

Within minutes of first reading Resuscitation of a Hanged Man I recognised a certain similarity between myself and Johnson that I had never encountered in another human before. It was how he put the words together, and the desperate longing in them. His writing brought me back to a world I had turned my back on, and introduced me to a new one I had often sensed around me, but never found a way into. I had hoped to one day meet him and ask a few questions. I eagerly awaited his next book and the stark beauty it would contain, whatever it may have been, and was sure it would win a Pulitzer. It is deeply disappointing that Johnson has left us. No individual person has influenced or inspired me more. A humble, quiet man who steered clear of the limelight, he lived in his later years a simple life not unlike that of Robert Grainer of Train Dreams. Notorious for declining interviews, it is hard to find any (here’s one). Denis Johnson was one of a kind, and his writing was truly unique.

But, as says the quote by Neal Cassady that Johnson himself chose for an epigraph to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, ‘Life goes into new forms.’


– Philip Elliott