Denis Johnson is dead, long live—whom?
Not “the King,” which moniker must belong to Elvis Presley, a key figure in Johnson’s final story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Nor can Denis Johnson easily be labeled a poet, novelist, or short-story writer. He was all three, and more: a poet who wrote mostly novels, whose best-loved work is the short-story collection Jesus’ Son. Alongside his nine novels, three books of poetry, and two short-story collections, Johnson published works of gonzo memoir, plays and screenplays, essays, and far-flung wartime reportage. His historical novella Train Dreams was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 (a rare year in which the Pulitzer board declined to award a fiction prize). Nobody Move, a tight noir novel, originally ran as a four-part serial in Playboy magazine.
Some writers defy labels; Johnson collected them.
Some writers defy labels; Johnson collected them. He was both a gritty realist and an impressionistic fantasist, often moving between modes within the space of a single paragraph, as in the story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”:
The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed fully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name.
He was a self-described Christian, whose career-long preoccupation with wretched characters and moments of epiphany draws natural comparison to Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene. Two novels centered on American intelligence operatives abroad, Tree of Smoke and The Laughing Monsters, seem in dialogue with Greene’s work (the former, which won the National Book Award in 2007, openly references The Quiet American). “I’m not trying to be Graham Greene,” Johnson joked to his editor, “I think I am Graham Greene.”
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Johnson studied with Raymond Carver, then became his drinking buddy in Iowa City. Johnson tangled with drugs and drink from age fourteen until his early thirties, when he straightened out and published his first novel, Angels. Even after finding sobriety, he never lost touch with the fractured, desperate mindset of a down-and-out junkie.
Scattered reminiscences of this lotus- eating past—set down against a $10,000 debt owed to the irs—formed the basis of Jesus’ Son, eleven interconnected stories curated by a drug-fogged lowlife called, provocatively, Fuckhead, whose remembrances are dissonant, poetic, and often uncanny. Of Johnson’s full oeuvre, this slim collection has proven a defining work, lauded at the time of publication and beloved by countless writers since. Michael Cunningham said it plainly: “so many people want to write this book over again.”
Jesus’ Son was the only short-story collection to appear during Johnson’s lifetime, but a second collection was announced in the days following his death in May 2017. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden shares its title with a short story published in TheNew Yorker in 2014 (at the time, Johnson’s first story to appear in the magazine in nearly twenty-five years).
Published in January 2018, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a swan song not only by proximity to the author’s expiration, but also in content and tone. Of the five stories in Johnson’s final collection, three linger heavily on themes of death and legacy, while the other two are set in earthly hells—a county jail and a rehabilitation center—populated by deflated junkies and killers.
These two stories, “Strangler Bob” and “The Starlight on Idaho,” are the closest Johnson comes to revisiting the chaotic world of his first collection. In Jesus’ Son, a twenty-one-year-old opium dealer named Dundun shoots one man (“McInnis isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”), tortures another, and beats a third man nearly to death. “Strangler Bob” sees Dundun locked up at nineteen, already showing “the tattooed veins of a hope-to-die heroin addict” on both arms.
In this story, Dundun is “a nasty little Neanderthal” who hangs on his cell bars like a monkey at the zoo. After taking a hit of smuggled lsd, he proclaims, “I’m feeling all the way back to my roots. To the caves. To the apes.” By story’s end, Dundun presses a button to summon the jail guards, well aware of the merciless beating they will bring. Like so many of Johnson’s characters, Dundun acts in spite of consequences, or perhaps in search of them. In this grim world, it is a distinction without difference.
Dundun acts in spite of consequences, or perhaps in search of them.
“The Starlight on Idaho” is the epistolary story of Mark Cassandra, a patient at the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center in northern California. Cass writes to everyone he can think of—family members, Pope John Paul II, and Satan, among others—as he grapples with addiction and reckons with his past. These letters chart a path through desperation, paranoia, and delusion, until Cass reaches something like the beginnings of self-knowledge.
In the collection’s title story, the aging adman Bill Whitman presents a carousel of ten short fragments, “certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.” A woman at a Carver-esque dinner party is made to kiss an amputated leg, and ultimately marries its owner. A journalist finds unexpected intimacy with a death row inmate, then forges a similar bond with the man’s widow. Bill attends the memorial service for an out-of-touch acquaintance named Tony Fido, only to learn that Tony considered him a best friend.
These scenes and sequences are shown from a distance—Bill recounts episodes secondhand, embraces forgetfulness, and frequently probes his own confusion—like gazing at stars across light years of empty space and cosmic dust. Just as this distance causes stars to twinkle, so do Johnson’s many narrative ambiguities and subversions seem to wink at the reader from a cosmic vantage. “You and I know what goes on,” Bill assures us. But we don’t know, and perhaps that’s just the point.
“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” tracks the long-term friendship between the writing professor Kevin Harrington and his student Mark Ahern, whose poetry Kevin considers “the real thing, line after line of the real thing.” Mark, however, considers poetry a secondary pursuit. His true ambition is to prove the great American conspiracy theory: that Elvis Presley was murdered by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and replaced by his allegedly stillborn (but, in fact, “living all along in Memphis”) twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley. When Mark reveals that he believes Kevin to be the reincarnation of his own stillborn older brother—“a presumptuous loony assault on my spiritual person”—Kevin chooses to accept this mad theory as truth and embrace Mark as his brother, a rare moment of connection in Johnson’s isolated world.
In form, “Triumph Over the Grave” most resembles “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” weaving through the memories and ramblings of a writing professor at the University of Texas. One such memory, in which the narrator undergoes a knee operation while tripping on lsd, reads like a close cousin of “Emergency” from Jesus’ Son. In another vignette, the narrator forms a friendship with an aging writer named Darcy Miller, who lives in a remote ranch outside Austin. When Miller begins to hallucinate visits from his dead brother and sister-in-law, the narrator becomes something of a caretaker, bringing Miller to the hospital where he learns of the advanced-stage lung cancer that has metastasized to his brain.
One reads the author into both of these characters, a choice that can be no accident: Denis Johnson taught at the University of Texas and donated his personal and professional papers to the University’s Harry Ransom Center. Darcy Miller’s pen name is D. Hale Miller—a loaf-sized breadcrumb, when it comes from D. Hale Johnson. The author plays this knowing game until the story’s final line: “It’s plain to you at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
One imagines Johnson setting down his pen and laughing into eternity.
Denis Johnson once conceded that the novel was the most challenging literary form, but only “if you take it seriously, and treat your prose like poetry.” He never shed this instinct, proceeding line by line to assemble works of enduring beauty, amaranthine in their capacity to evoke and mystify.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 80
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