“There’s nothing wrong with me”—I’m surprised I let those words out.
But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Now what does that mean?”
“I’m not ready to go into all that,” I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish.
from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”
I first heard of Denis Johnson in 1985 when a co-worker told me her sister had dated him. He was a poet she said. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, a million miles away from the world of Denis Johnson. A few years later in graduate school, Padgett Powell had us read Johnson’s first novel, Angels. It was a gritty underbelly kind of story, like glimpsing into a bus station and seeing someone with tinfoil on his head. Later, I tuned into his other novels, such as Fiskadora, which the New York Times described as “the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Wasteland,’ Fahrenheit 451, and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.” And then, way after the fact, I read what most would call his masterwork, a short story collection called Jesus’ Son. I’ve read it multiple times since. Anyone who has not read Denis Johnson should start with Jesus’ Son. A blurb on the paperback gives us a clue to what special magic is going on here: “Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.”
The opening story that starts the collection is a kind of storytelling you probably haven’t experienced before. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it as a story where plot matters less than the “brokenness” of the narrator’s voice, “where the personal brushes up against the eternal.” Johnson, in his youth, had been a heroin addict, and if you combine the spiritual emptiness of a druggie with a gifted poet, a storyteller who studied under Raymond Carver and was inspired by Isaac Babel’s The Red Calvary, and an artist with a clear unabashed honesty and the courage to go where few would ever admit to going, let alone describe, you get that first story in Jesus’ Son, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”
Denis Johnson, who, from all accounts, enjoyed people but shunned them like he did the booze and drugs that nearly killed him, lived in the woods in upstate Idaho with his wife. According to Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, Johnson had a shed by a lake on his property where he would sometimes work. Treisman writes, the lake “provided a metaphor for how he thought about his sentences, which he polished, sometimes for years, until he felt he had got them right. ‘There’s a surface tension to the words,’ he told me. ‘It is an illusion, and you can poke at it once, and then after that you’re just poking the ripples.’” Lawrence Wright said Johnson described writing a novel to him this way: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” Wright uncovered three writing rules Johnson told students:
-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
And once written, how did Johnson take the reviews? “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”
A lot of people loved the writing of Denis Johnson. And a lot of writers who marveled at his words will no doubt be reading them again in the coming days. Johnson was 67 years old when he died earlier this week from cancer.