To Denis Johnson, from One of the Weirdos
How the work of one weirdo taught me how to live
Last week, while traveling in Hong Kong, I was taken by surprise to hear that Denis Johnson had passed away, a surreal bit of news made stranger by the way that so little at home ever feels fully real while I’m abroad. I stood up from the table in the middle of lunch with four of my graduate students, all of us on a global fellowship program during which we’d arranged for them to meet and study with local writers in Hong Kong and Singapore, and when I came back I brought with me the awful news that Johnson had passed. I kept the news to myself, because I didn’t want to interrupt the good cheer my students were sharing, even if I could no longer quite join in. As soon as lunch was over, I excused myself from the group and went back to my hotel room to download Jesus’ Son to my phone, the fastest way I could think of to get to Johnson’s fiction. I sat on my bed and started reading, turning immediately to “Work,” perhaps my favorite of Johnson’s stories, and when I read my favorite sentence in it, the one I’ve known by heart for almost twenty years — “Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked” — it was all I could do to hold back tears.
Denis Johnson is gone at 67, and a few days later I still feel in shock at the news. Other than the forthcoming collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and the possibility of a posthumous publication or two, there will be no new novels, no new stories, no new plays or poems. Thankfully, we have such a powerful body of work that it might last us all a long time. I have been reading his books over and over for almost half my life, and I am not nearly done with them yet.
Every time I open one of Denis Johnson’s books there is some new thrill of language, some new revelation of what it means to be truly alive.
Even better, they seem not nearly done with me either, because every time I open one of Denis Johnson’s books there is some new thrill of language, some new revelation of what it means to be truly alive, some further mystery of the human experience I hadn’t seen before. Very few books offer this kind of continually deepening relationship to the reader. Almost all of Johnson’s do, at least to me.
Denis Johnson was not my teacher or mentor. We did not have any correspondence; I was never introduced to him by our few mutual friends, and even though he was my favorite writer I never dared to ask for a blurb or any other kind of help. (For me, it would have been like asking God for a blurb: a purely fantastical notion.) I met Johnson only once in person, a brief interaction that was extraordinarily embarrassing for me and probably twice as unbearable for him. (This outcome was my fault, not his. I’m sure he would have been generous, had I given him the chance. I did not give him the chance.)
The relationship I had with Johnson was not a personal one, and yet from my end it was intimate, characterized by the great affection and appreciation we feel toward the writers of the books that mean the most to us. No one’s books have meant more to me than Johnson’s, whose novels and poems I credit with having saved my life when I was twenty years old or so, a perhaps moderately hyperbolic statement that nevertheless feels largely true.
Before 1999 or 2000, I hadn’t read much contemporary literary fiction at all, but the summer before I’d read Kurt Vonnegut’s catalog more or less end to end, and around that same time I saw the movie Fight Club, which led me to Chuck Palahniuk’s novels. It was Palahniuk who indirectly introduced me to Johnson: I was voraciously hungry for better suggestions of what to read, slowly waking up to what contemporary writers were doing, instead of the late dead greats I’d been taught in school.
One trick I’d discovered was reading interviews with writers I liked, who would inevitably mention other writers, who I would then read. Working that tactic, I found an interview with Palahniuk in an issue of Poets & Writers I picked up in the Saginaw, Michigan Barnes & Noble where I then bought so many of my books, and in his interview he said that his three favorite writers were Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Denis Johnson, all of whom I headed to the stacks to buy.
The day you simultaneously discover Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Denis Johnson? That’s a pretty memorable day.
The day you simultaneously discover Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Denis Johnson? That’s a pretty memorable day. I can see exactly where the magazine section the Poets and Writers issue was, I can see the photo of Palahniuk on the cover still, and I remember it was also where I first heard of Colson Whitehead, who I also read soon thereafter. If I remember right, Palahniuk singled out Jesus’ Son as the book of Johnson’s to read, but my Barnes & Noble only had Already Dead, so I bought that novel and asked the cashier to order Jesus’ Son for me. By the time I got the call that my copy had come in, I was finished with Already Dead but only just beginning with Johnson: that afternoon, I immediately read Jesus’ Son cover to cover, and the next day I read it again.
Then I went back and ordered Angels. And while I waited for it to come, I read Jesus’ Son some more.
I had liked Already Dead fine, but Jesus’ Son was life-changing. At twenty, I’d never read anything like it. At thirty-seven, that’s less true, but it’s still not false: there are a lot of books that at first glance look like Jesus’ Son, but it still feels surprisingly singular to me.
Everything I discovered in his books seemed mine, even as I started pushing his books on friends, on my siblings, on anyone else who would listen.
Because I wasn’t immersed in any literary community, I didn’t have anyone else who I could talk to about Jesus’ Son (and then Angels and The Name of the World and Fiskadoro and so on). It seemed like Johnson was mine alone, and as I reread his books there was no one there to tell me how to read him, what the stories meant, what I should be feeling. Everything I discovered in his books seemed mine, even as I started pushing his books on friends, on my siblings, on anyone else who would listen. It would be maybe eight more years before I met anyone else who’d read Johnson without my urging, when I finally made it through undergrad at twenty-six and then on to grad school two years later.
When I first read Johnson, I was, as one of his own characters might have observed, “completely and openly a mess,” absolutely at my most lost, caught in the midst of a period of making terrible mistakes and just barely escaping having to really pay for them, over and over. I’d recently dropped out of college and simultaneously lost my first real job, I was bartending in a chain Mexican restaurant, struggling and sometimes failing to pay my bills, plus I was drinking too much and not doing much of everything except what other people had once told me where the “right things” to do. These many failures of my own making had left me hurting and feeling very alone, and so the first thing Johnson did for me, with Jesus’ Son and Angels especially, was in his fiction name what was wrong with me, by giving me characters who felt the same way I believed I did:
“We all believed we were tragic… We had that helpless, destined feeling. We would die with handcuffs on… And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons.”
That wasn’t exactly my story, but it was close enough, a plausible story I could believe in it. And that’s what I needed then, more than anything: a new story.
Then, even more mercifully, Johnson showed me that it was possible to live with what was wrong with me too. I didn’t have to die of my grief or my sadness or my mistakes. I might never get rid of all the cruel and stupid parts of me, but surely there was beauty in me too, and whatever else happened, I would probably live, and if I lived, I might get better. Not today, maybe, and not tomorrow either. But someday. And even if I was always fucked up and weird, that still didn’t mean I was the only fucked up weirdo out there.
Johnson showed me that it was possible to live with what was wrong with me too.
It was enough. That’s what so remarkable: all I needed, right then, was a simple connection with another person who understood how I felt.
I was that alone.
When I was twenty years old, it was enough to hope for nothing more than the thin happiness of the ending Fuckhead finally earns in “Beverly Home”:
“All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
Almost twenty years later, I still hold out hope for this, more often than I would like to admit: to get a little better every day, in the midst of all my fellow weirdos. And as for the “place for people like us”? I’ve found that too, sometimes in the physical world, sure, but also in Johnson’s fictional worlds, where all too often both the best and worst parts of me feel right at home.
For a long time, I thought what I loved about Jesus’ Son and Angels and the rest of Johnson’s books were the fuckups and the lost people, because I was a lost fuckup when I first read him too. But that wasn’t all of it. When I first read Johnson, I was unhappy but I was also newly hungry: hungry for bigger experiences, hungry for real wonder, hungry for proof that the world I could see could not possibly be the only world there could be. In truth, I was starving with want, every day consumed with a kind of awful gnawing I hope never to feel so acutely again. And Fuckhead in Jesus’ Son and Bill Houston and Jamie Mays of Angels are hungry too: They go out looking for drugs or alcohol or sex, which they find in excess, but often the rewards of those quests are not merely oblivion or escape but a temporary access to the sublime and the divine, a feeling as fleeting as the hard grace that Flannery O’Connor’s characters famously find for the briefest of moments.
When I first read Johnson, I was unhappy but I was also newly hungry: hungry for bigger experiences, hungry for real wonder, hungry for proof that the world I could see could not possibly be the only world there could be.
When Fuckhead and Georgie stumble into the abandoned drive-in theater during the snowstorm in “Emergency,” Fuckhead believes they’ve come across a cemetery filled with a heavenly host. In that moment, he says, “the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.” For a moment, those angels were there, not a hallucination but a biblical visitation, Fuckhead’s reaction as visceral and physical as that of the shepherds visited by the angels on the birth of Christ, which the King James Version tells us made those shepherds “sore afraid,” as fine a depiction of the physical trauma of encountering the sublime as any I’ve ever read. For Fuckhead, the moment doesn’t last, and the dialogue that follows is tragically hilarious — once George breaks the spell by pointing out that they’ve wandered into a deserted drive-in, Fuckhead flatly remarks, “I see. I thought it was something else.”
Similarly, in “Work,” Fuckhead and Wayne see a woman paragliding naked through the sky, a vision who turns out to be Wayne’s wife — and there is nothing in the story to give this vision any ambiguity except the reader’s own doubts, except the possibility that all this is a dream “Wayne is having about his wife” that somehow Fuckhead has wandered into, itself a kind of impossible vision — and then later Fuckhead relates a memory of another “one of those moments,” spent in bed with his own first wife: “Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fiber and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. 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.”
And not just birth: Life should be like that, Johnson implies, and also invites us to ask: Why isn’t it? Why is the sublime and the beautiful and the spiritual so hard to access?
I know now that I might have killed myself with alcohol and drugs or something else if I hadn’t read this book, if I hadn’t seen myself reflected in the cost of Fuckhead’s inability to get what he really wanted for more than a moment at a time.
Throughout Jesus’s Son, Fuckhead wants to get high, but more than that he wants to transcend. Me too, I must have thought, reading Jesus’ Son for the first time. And while I didn’t have the language to articulate all this then — like Fuckhead, I mostly live on a lower and more base plane of existence, even if I pretend otherwise — and I know now that I might have killed myself with alcohol and drugs or something else if I hadn’t read this book, if I hadn’t seen myself reflected in the cost of Fuckhead’s inability to get what he really wanted for more than a moment at a time. If I hadn’t understood that I was becoming a person just like him, limited in similar ways, someone capable of both of cruelty and kindness, someone who craved the sublime but knew only the cheaper and quicker ways of accessing its grandeur.
Johnson once told an interviewer that what he writes about “is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: ‘Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?’” In my own work as a writer, I’m animated by something similar to what Johnson describes, although I’d no longer articulate it as religiously as he did. The worst years of my life began all at once for a variety of reasons, but a loss of faith was tied up in all of what happened to me next: that year, I’d suffered a deep and surprisingly traumatic loss of belief in the Catholic faith which up until then had been an important part of my life. More than anything else, losing my faith emptied the world: I had grown up among people who believed in the physicality of God and the angels, who believed that miracles and the intercessions of the saints were real, not metaphorical. When I stopped believing in those things, I lost access to the world everyone where everyone I knew lived — and for a time I also lost some of my ability to even hope for certain kinds of grand experiences and greater beauties, for a world better than this world that made the miseries of this one worth bearing.
Despite my worldview being rearranged, I still sensed there was kind of sublime that doesn’t require the presence of God, but I didn’t know how to get there yet. Fuckhead tries to arrive by drugs and alcohol. So did I. But literature is another way too, and in Johnson’s work there exists a literary depiction of the fleeting liminality of the sublime that I find nearly peerless, especially among contemporary American writers. Nearly everyone who has ever tried to rip off the style of Jesus’ Son — including me, since my first published stories were essentially Denis Johnson fan fiction — fails at this part of it.
In another interview, Johnson once said, “The stories of the fallen world, they excite us. That’s the interesting stuff.” But depicting alcoholics and addicts and criminals and people otherwise down on their luck isn’t that hard: all you have to be willing to do is make your characters suffer. Showing those same characters reach the sublime from within their fallen state — in other words, without insisting on redemption preceding reward — is seemingly much more difficult. Almost no other contemporary writer does that as well as Johnson. Almost no one even tries.
That whatever better world might exist behind our world is for the fallen too, not just the righteous: that’s a radical idea. (Radical enough that by one reading its probably Jesus’ idea too, distilled to its purest form: that we are already in the kingdom of heaven, if only we have eyes to see.) Even if I couldn’t have articulated it then, that’s certainly part of what I responded in my first readings of Johnson. “I went looking for that feeling everywhere,” Fuckhead says in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” after his own earliest revelatory moment with the grieving woman shrieking with the shriek of an eagle, and like Fuckhead chasing that scream I chased the feeling I got from Johnson’s work everywhere I could but especially in Johnson’s own books.
Transcendence — real transcendence, in the world — usually doesn’t last. The sublime is too difficult to reach, too fleeting to grasp for long. But in Johnson’s books, we can at will touch the hem of the heavens, that better world his characters glimpsed but rarely reached and never got to stay.
We won’t get to stay either. No one ever does. At the end of “Emergency,” Johnson’s Fuckhead says, “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?” It’s a gorgeous moment in one of my favorite stories ever, and Johnson undercuts it by finishing the story with a joke, as if even Fuckhead knows it’s a bit too earnest. But that passage was among the first things I thought of when I heard Johnson had passed: I thought, Jesus, there will never be another Denis Johnson story.
All those worlds, all erased!
Maybe. Maybe! But at least he left us his scrolls. And I hope more than anything that we won’t ever be so foolish as to put them away.
As I said earlier, I met Denis Johnson just once, when I was living in Ann Arbor, finishing my MFA at Bowling Green State an hour away, commuting back and forth. Johnson was in Ann Arbor to speak at the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards Ceremony, where he read his Playboy story “The Starlight on Idaho” and gave some brief remarks. I was, as I expected to be, in awe from my seat in the second row of the auditorium’s stadium seating, right above where it turned out he would sit when brought into the room, and where he later tried to calmly return to after his reading. Little did Johnson know that I’d been waiting for my chance to say hello, to say thank you, to say anything that might approximate what his books meant to me — and as he approached I felt something glitch in my brain and the next thing I knew I was leaned over the first row of seats, babbling incoherently from above him — and I had also managed, somehow, to grab him by his shirt, as if afraid he might escape.
By then, he was definitely trying to escape.
I was mortified, he looked very displeased, and throughout our short interaction I kept holding on to him, my mouth moving faster than my brain as I violently tried to tell him what he meant to me, until finally he put the palm of one hand on top of my fist clenched around his shirt buttons and calmly and wordlessly pushed my hand off him.
And that was that. My one chance to speak to my hero, wasted. Johnson turned around and walked away, I shrank back in horror, and when a friend of mine in Michigan’s program suggested “I come to the reception and meet Denis” I instead fled across the street and got drunk with another friend, both of us stunned by what I’d just done.
I truly hope this essay isn’t just more of the same mistake.
Maybe I just wish I could have told him that I loved him because I loved his books, and because I felt loved by his books, because by the way he wrote his characters he showed me that it was capable for a person like him to love someone like me.
I hope what I’ve written here isn’t just one more way of clutching at Denis Johnson’s shirt buttons, refusing to let go, but maybe it is. Maybe that’s all this ever really could be, given how strongly I feel: more than anything, maybe I desperately wish I could have told Denis Johnson how much I loved him, even though we’ve never really met. Maybe I just wish I could have told him that I loved him because I loved his books, and because I felt loved by his books, because by the way he wrote his characters he showed me that it was capable for a person like him to love someone like me.
That’s really what I wished I’d said that day. Just that: Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for being a writer capable of loving someone like Fuckhead or Bill or Jamie or any of the other unforgettable characters you invented. Your love for them on the page, a mix of empathy and honesty and your rendering of them in perfect prose — which the writer in me sees now might have been a way of learning to love someone like yourself, flawed but hopeful — it was a gift to me too, at the time I so desperately needed it, back when I was just another of the many lowercase fuckheads of the worse, just another weirdo without his place.
Without any place except for your books, I should have said, those beautiful books where for many years I went to learn how to live.