‘Someday people are going to read about you in a story or a poem. Will you describe yourself for those people?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m a fat piece of shit, I guess.’
‘No. I’m serious.’
‘You’re not going to write about me.’
‘Hey, I’m a writer.’
‘Well then, just tell them I’m overweight.’
‘I been shot twice.’
‘Once by each wife, for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.’
‘And you’re still alive.’
‘Are you going to change any of this for your poem?’
‘No. It’s going in word for word.’
(‘Steady Hands at Seattle General’ in Jesus’ Son)
Not all Denis Johnson’s narrators face the reader quite so directly, but the thrust and position here are broadly characteristic. Entire novels have failed where the barest of his skits succeed in bringing people and their stories to life. Raw is what you might use to describe dead meat; this stuff is alive. But what would you call his kind of writing?
As a writer, Johnson is where the critics aren’t. This is a reason I love him, but also why he’s difficult to discuss. Reading the plaudits on his books is surreal, like looking down the wrong end of the telescope – all those adjectives twinkling at irrelevant distance. The acclaim is in stark contrast with what lies between the covers: prose unlike any lens, of a sensory and psychological keenness beyond such critical gloss. But trying to write about him without recourse to abstract praise is harder, and risks overstating the obvious or descending into mystical adulation. I wind up with what the American painter Philip Guston said about his favourite Old Master: ‘in Rembrandt the plane of art is removed. It is not a painting, but a real person – a substitute, a golem.’
Denis Johnson’s career, at least, can be parsed with some measure. An American with an international upbringing, he published his first poetry collection at the age of 19 in 1969, and subsequently went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the tutelage of Raymond Carver. Then ensued an unproductive decade of alcoholism and heroin abuse, after which a handful of novels appeared through the 1980s to tempered approval. Finally, in 1992, a sensationally good short story collection, Jesus’ Son, met with widespread enthusiasm and critical acclaim. In 2007 he won The National Book Award for a masterpiece on the Vietnam war, Tree of Smoke, and in 2012 he was one of the finalists for the unwon Pulitzer Prize with the novella Train Dreams.
Admired in Britain by a spread of authors from Michael Ondaatje to Geoff Dyer with every broadsheet reviewer in between, Johnson is yet little known beyond professional literary circles here. A shame, because his work is nothing like the self-referential and esoteric writing that tends to fall exclusively into the hands of a cultured elite. It’s as humanely relevant as anything, and near silent about its own literariness, counter to those trends of loud self-engagement dominant in European literature. He is not self-branded or writerly in any obvious way, which, of course, may be why he remains largely unread outside America.
There’s a passage from ‘The Other Man’, a short story in Jesus’ Son, which feels particularly representative of his approach. It’s the moment when a couple reach the romantic apotheosis of their night:
It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mended. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.
Pointing at the lives he writes about here is a narrative accent, but also a gesture of literary self-identity. In both cases you can see the fingers, but the words ‘meta’ or ‘postmodern’ would never occur. The point is subtle, touched on by natural repetitions in syntax and wording and by an organic coincidence between the thing described and the means of describing it, both being instances of intimacy. Seediness and cynicism underwrite the sentimentality of those bonds, of course: the paper moon is ‘torn’, the narrator is about to sleep with someone else’s wife, and as for the writer and the reader, it won’t last forever, the story will end, these are its closing lines. But, however momentarily, we are all connected – Johnson self-manifest and disappearing into his writing, taking us with him.
A paradox here makes him hard to get a handle on. The style of the writing is singular and self-effacing: eccentric and flamboyant but equally elusive, an identity that asserts itself one moment and camouflages itself the next. It isn’t only that he writes in the first person. Most of his novels are in fact third person narratives. Rather, there is a self-knowing subjectivity that distinguishes him from his realist forebears, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Raymond Carver and Isaac Babel. Those writers pursued an ideal of truth across surfaces of focused prose. Johnson’s writing performs the private mess of attitudes which they would have used style to make sense of, before they made them public. His prose retains much of the original chaos of thoughts and feelings; the tone and diction can be moody as a man. So despite the presence of literary influences, his style can feel more like the charisma of a person than anything else – specific, individualised and unpredictably mutable. The inconsistencies are further exaggerated by Johnson’s disinclination to work within one genre: his writing changes according to the subject he deals with.
It’s the same paradox that defines superlative actors: the ability to morph into new parts, while maintaining that something of themselves that makes them recognisable and, moreover, real. And this is what you get in Denis Johnson’s writing, as with Guston’s Rembrandt: both a creation and ‘a real person – a substitute, a golem’. It’s a performance of personality that, like the best painting or acting, smashes artifice and humanity into one thing that confronts you from outside and in, and doesn’t waste time counting the walls.
To give a sense of his scope: in some cases he is spare and precise, as in Train Dreams, a short bildungsroman that lands somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and John Williams’ Stoner. The novella is the story of a man’s life – that of Robert Grainier, a rural labourer on the railways through the mid-twentieth century. Its key moments are brought off powerfully, emerging with heady clarity out of an otherwise firmly prosaic narrative. Take Grainier’s first kiss, which:
plummeted him down a hole and popped him out in a world he thought he could get along in – as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
All is told with an economy characteristic of Grainier: the rowing metaphor reached for naturally enough in a world dominated by toil; ‘daisies’ as the lightest of romantic touches, their beauty simple as the moment itself; ‘supposed’ marking this out against a backdrop of sexual innocence and workaday asceticism, telling those cautious, utilitarian instincts his blood now pounds against.
Elsewhere Johnson’s use of language is excessive, or overbearing, like the weather in Tree of Smoke:
Immediately after each sunset a lid of clouds pressed the heat down on Damulog and crushed the blossoms and forced its way inside everybody’s head. Slowly the whole town sipped rum.
Sometimes, a transgression in the wording renders it conspicuously poetic, such as the vehicle that drags a crowd out of Damulog ‘like a greasy, sweaty, iceberg – of what use brakes against such inexorableness?’ The lumpen oxymoron, the camp italics, a ludicrously biblical noun: these are all part of the theatrical exuberance such weather might bring about.
The style of writing often changes radically within individual books, particularly Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s novel on the Vietnam war, which vacillates between purple prose and lean reportage or hysteric drama and tough-guy dialogue. It is as if the more pared down passages have been stripped of human excess by the worst effects of such excesses, so bespeaking baroque elaborations of violence and cruelty in their minimalism. The range is dramatised in several exchanges between two of the main characters, Cathy and Skip. A woman, missionary and war-widow, Cathy is well placed to vent a sadness that most of the novel’s male characters, in their military posts, are inured to, but Johnson does not give us such an easy in. Cathy is also a weirdo, her insights are unhinged and never assuring for all their accuracy. She remains a person before a reliable point of view.
Skip is CIA, practical and constitutionally reserved, yet his crumbly manners and yearning give him a roundness absent from those macho figures that typically lead the action in war novels – a George Smiley cut loose from the old-hat romance circumscribing le Carré’s politics and set adrift in a Hollywood bloodbath, perhaps. Here they both are, with their mixed offerings, odd angles on death:
This American created a silence hard to resist. She had to fill it: ‘You know, it’s not unusual, it’s not weird, it’s not unheard of, to go on in the middle of tragedy. Look at where we are! The sun keeps rising and setting. Each day kicks more room in your heart – what would be the word… the love is relentless, relentlessly pushing, it keeps pushing and kicking like a child inside you. All right, then! That’s enough out of me!’ What a fool I am! She almost shouted.
The setting sun lowered from the clouds and struck up at them in such a way that suddenly the entire town throbbed with scarlet light. The American didn’t comment on it. He said, ‘And what happens when this is, is, is – concluded?’
‘There, congratulations, you found a word.’
‘You mean if Timothy’s dead?’
‘If, well – yes. Sorry.’
His direct questioning turned to mumbling in the absence of answers or purpose, her outsize emotions and ravaged faith, and a narrative that roves between the two: these exemplify perspectives the book gives us on the war – and they are only two of many. It’s an episode of history which extremes of madness and horror make difficult to write about. How to respond to truths that can’t be reasoned, or acts that bludgeon discerning? Johnson is working in an abandoned world, one in which nobody, least of all an author, is authoritative. Though the ghosts of Graham Greene and Joseph Heller might haunt certain plots and characters in the book, the old outlines of thriller or satire run too clear for Johnson’s literature.
In Tree of Smoke, things are hazier, as the novel’s title suggests. Along with so many civilians and towns, the myths that sustained warmongering generations have been vaporised. The ambivalence Johnson might feel about these fictions is bodied forth in the person of Colonel Sands, Skip’s uncle and the most darkly charismatic figure in the novel. He has more panache and humour than the rest of the characters put together and, like a Shakespearean villain, all the best lines. But there’s a danger to even his most pacific seductions; prejudice, megalomania and indifferent charm pervade his every word and gesture. At first he seems a harmless anachronism, an old-school ex-pat, a symbol of Western bombast and eccentric individualism, but he is ultimately the toxic enchantment leading this sick armada.
For much of the novel, reader and writer are alike under the colonel’s spell, making it all the more shocking in those instances where he is exposed as fraud, fool or monster. In trying to figure out his own part in the failed mission, Skip finally sees how the Colonel has cast each of them in a terrifying play of events:
Skip regretted the role handed him at the end, that of traitor to the rebellion. At the end the colonel had sought reasons not just for an operation gone wrong, but for the breaking of his own heart, had looked for betrayal at the centre of things in the shape of some classical enormity, and what could have been more enormous, more darkly Roman, than betrayal by one’s own house, by his nephew, by his own blood? A soul too wide for the world. He’s refused to see his downfall as typical… He’d written himself large-scale, followed raptly the saga of his own journey, chased his own myth down a maze of tunnels and into the fairyland of children’s stories and up a tree of smoke.
To call the premise of war a falsehood would suggest the existence of a hard concept of truth, but there are no such solid comforts offered. Like his literary style, Johnson’s take on Vietnam can appear critically erratic. But that is a fundament of its honesty; conclusions or consistent illusions have no place in a shattered world.
Vietnam destroyed the notion of credible ideologies for some Americans, and that destruction forms the central act of Tree of Smoke. Yet this isn’t the only crisis of faith in Denis Johnson’s career. Rather, the conflict between total disillusion and belief in any kind of truth would seem to underwrite his world-view, one born out in a literary style that restlessly seeks and abandons. Though he remains a realist in spirit, for him this means something more mobile and impure than is commonly associated with the term. It’s a response to the myriad tones and registers of truth to tell, and the lies that dog those truths. For Johnson, realism is not a genre. His writing squirms through poetry, songs, short stories and novels, spanning surrealism, satire, Western, epic, the tragic literary road-trip in his early novel Angels, and his later stab at dystopian sci-fi, Fiskadoro.
This puts him in a very lonely place, far from the populous majority of single genre fiction practitioners – such as Roth, Updike and Franzen over there, or Amis, McEwan and Zadie Smith over here. It makes his books harder to brand and market, perhaps even to understand. Genres offer a perspective through which the writer and reader can see things together and in the context of broader meanings. A genre is a shared, aggregate frame. But what happens when those contexts have been discredited – either by historical events that uncover the potential evil of shared myths, or by a scepticism towards artistic uniformity that is the legacy of postmodernism? The fictive frames are effectively dismantled.
Reading Denis Johnson, one might ask what it is we look through instead. He is not of the tribe who carry on regardless. Traditionalists like Martin Amis continue to write in the style of realists and within clichés of realist literature, despite a morbid doubt of the ideals that defined them. There are all manner of reasons to keep doing this. It’s popular, it’s comforting and it’s better than nothing – that void around which more experimental writers dance. The other option: the theatre of formal experiment with which narrative and meaning are replaced by Pynchon and Delillo, or Will Self and Tom McCarthy.
These are the dominant camps in contemporary fiction, at least fiction with some aspiration to realism. There are those who cleave to a faith in old forms of truth telling – basically eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels – which they know to be flawed but nonetheless need as a way to look at the world and find meaning in it. Or, there are those who examine the flaws in those forms themselves, but effectively to the same end. So, puritans and dissidents. Denis Johnson is a bit of both, deploying traditional forms with an eclecticism (or irreverence) that denatures them and creates something else. This doesn’t always work. For example, his latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, is a spy thriller that confronts international politics as a black comedy but fails to find a way out of its own humour or darkness. There are flashes of brilliance, but overall it comes across as unforgivably bleak and cavalier, a picaresque of corruption. This may very well expose a danger in his stance: in the absence of inherited structures or any school of philosophy, the writing depends heavily on individual style, and where that runs awry, the book fails.
Obviously he isn’t the only freak in contemporary fiction, and he bears comparison with other infra-realists such as Karl Ove Knausgaard or Roberto Bolaño. But unlike them, his work is not primarily concerned with literature itself. He is both aesthete and humanist, often simultaneously, and his words swim at the surface of the writing before pitching into depths, like a fleck of bluish black paint that suddenly tips you into a pupil. In ‘Work’, a short story from Jesus’ Son, we get an alcoholic’s description of the best drinks in town – the fullest, of course – which a beloved barmaid pours to the brim so that ‘you had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom’. It’s an exquisite simile, pretty, but with a brutal perfection that slowly dawns: this man needs booze like a bird needs nectar. It’s typical of a style so lightly loaded that the symbols catch you off-guard. Disarmingly apt, they ambush through the ease with which they come about.
Johnson’s books are all concerned with people on the fringes of society going mad, breaking down, or otherwise struggling to function in the world. He is one of these characters. No ideology will save them, no bourgeois plot will steer their actions, their lives don’t fit the narratives of mainstream literary genres. But that isn’t to say that literature can’t offer them anything, or that realism can’t be relevant. In Johnson’s hands, it becomes a case-specific way of writing, a response to the actual demands of a situation, however wayward those circumstances and the words they inspire may be.
The short story ‘Dundun’ opens with the news that a character, McInnes, has been drunkenly shot by one of his friends and is dying. The drunken friend and his other drunken friends need to drive the man to hospital but another one of their friends has drunkenly trapped the car:
I looked out the side window… Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now held up the shed’s roof.
At the centre of this construction, like some comedy keystone, the word ‘sideswiped’ makes the whole thing stand up. The drugs they are on have only made things comically worse, but nothing other than humour would get you through this mess.
The tropes of language may be fickle but they also guard against the looming threats of insanity or isolation (which often amount to the same thing). In many cases, a sense of one’s own part in a broader theatre, whether tragedy or farce, is vital, both as a way of examining individual identity and as a way to connect with other people. But sometimes there are no broader contexts. Instead, there are only fragile connections. These are not necessarily profound or consoling but they have an eerie honesty about them, offering a fugitive communion.
It can be a humourous mot juste like ‘sideswiped’, or a more expansive allegory. In ‘Work’, that of the hummingbird marvel, two friends drive through a rural backwater to gut a house and sell off the raw materials. En route they see a boat from which flutters a decorated kite:
From the kite, up in the air a hundred feet or so, a woman was suspended, belted in somehow, I would have guessed. She had long red hair. She was delicate and white and naked, apart from her beautiful hair. I don’t know what she was thinking as she floated past these ruins.
Later, the protagonist meets his buddy’s abandoned wife, who appears like a ghost of the earlier image:
The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had landed her here.
These descriptions share a startling, visionary quality that makes the link, but it’s also felt and explicitly articulated by the narrator:
There was no doubt in my mind, she was the woman we’d seen flying over the river. As nearly as I could tell I’d wandered into some sort of dream Wayne had been having about his wife and his house. But I didn’t say anything more about it.
It’s classic Denis Johnson – the unexpected loveliness, the casual stylishness of his prose, and something redeeming beyond it, a connection that he yet refuses to analyse. This is where he differs from most of his peers. He won’t insist that the connections in his writing are more meaningful than they really are or locate them in patterns of significance. Instead he describes such moments as specific but often random, evanescent or even nonsensical. This can feel like literary short-changing: stoned revelations that don’t outlast their own duration, improvisations that live and die in the present. Nonetheless, they are beautiful, funny and, however briefly, true, which is all one can ask of literature.