Denis Johnson had ruthless honesty and transcendent power

Denis Johnson ought to have had a free pass. Denis Johnson ought to have been exempt. To write as he did, in this crucible of a world, it ought to be worth more than to die on Wednesday at 67, or perhaps to die at all. Think of the transcendent power of his sentences, the ruthless honesty, the unexpected turns.

“Down the hall came the wife,” he tells us late in his short story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which opens his remarkable 1992 collection of linked stories, “Jesus’ Son,” by presenting the aftermath of a fatal accident. “She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

A slab of brilliance, incinerated diamonds: Could there be a better description of what Johnson could do on the page? So raw, so honest — metaphysical and at the same time rooted in the world. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes, to fail in public; all but a handful of his books have their problems, yet in the end these fade away like smoke. In any case, we don’t come to Johnson for perfection; we come to experience how he works with, or exposes, the ineffable. “God is a universe and a wall,” he argues in his 1991 novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man.” “… But there is a pattern, a web of coincidence. God … is the chief conspirator.” And this: “There are no coincidences to a faithful person, a person of faith, a knight of faith. … [T]he mystery is the Mystery.”

“Resuscitation of a Hanged Man” is a strange book, which could, of course, be said of much of Johnson’s work. It tells the story of Leonard English, a 33-year-old (yes, we recognize the symbolism), who in the wake of a failed suicide attempt has come to Provincetown to reorient himself. That this doesn’t happen goes without saying; like Jesus, Johnson’s heroes, or antiheroes, often wrestle with “the sense of a cloud between [themselves] and God.” Still, to label him a religious writer is to miss the point. English, like so many of his characters, is looking for meaning, but he has no idea of how to find it or even where to look. “Out of the million little things happening on this beach,” he reflects, “you can only be aware of seven things at once, seven things at any given time. … We never get the whole picture. … Our delusions are just as likely to be real as our most careful scientific observations.”

This is a key passage, the articulation of a principle, or an aesthetic, so subjective that our common, reassuring pieties are rendered moot. Instead, Johnson is insisting, we exist in the presence of a brutal sort of wonder, temporary residents of a universe that is indifferent but offers glimpses of the miraculous if we are willing to open our eyes. “I’m living in the Bible’s world right now,” he writes in “An Anarchists Guide to Somalia,” one of 11 dispatches in his nonfiction collection “Seek” (2001), “the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too.”

I don’t mean to keep quoting Johnson’s writing, but I don’t know what else to do. If you’re looking for a traditional appreciation, I don’t have one; I’m bereft, and mostly what I can offer are the passages that see me through. Take “Jesus’ Son,” which, 25 years after publication, remains his best-known work. It is a book that sits at the very top of the pantheon, widely considered to be an American masterpiece. It is a book I’ve read so many times I feel as if I know it by heart. Here, we see the clearest expression of Johnson’s double vision, his gritty mysticism. Revolving around a recovering addict, it distills some piece of the author’s experience (“I never quite became a hippie,” he wrote, revealingly, in an essay about the Rainbow Gathering. “And I’ll never stop being a junkie”) into an act of expression so visionary, so stark in its clarity and its confusion, that it cannot help but become our own.

Here he is in “Beverly Home,” describing a patient on a rehab ward who suffers from “something like multiple sclerosis”: “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Here he is from “Out on Bail”: “We lived in a tiny, dirty apartment. When I realized how long I’d been out and how close I’d come to leaving it forever, our little home seemed to glitter like cheap jewelry. I was overjoyed not to be dead.” This is writing that devours its own illusions, that requires us to stare eternity, with its sharp incisors, in the face. “Generally,” Johnson’s narrator continues, “the closest I ever came to wondering about the meaning of it all was to consider that I must be the victim of a joke.”

By framing himself, or his alter ego, in such terms, Johnson is not making the case that nothing matters. Nor is he suggesting that we retreat from the world. Quite the contrary: Much of his fiction takes on big-bore issues, politics and history. In “The Name of the World” (2000), a college professor turns away from tragedy by becoming a war correspondent in the Middle East; 2007’s National Book Award-winning “Tree of Smoke,” meanwhile, zeroes in on Vietnam. His most recent novel, “The Laughing Monsters” (2014), involves a scheme to sell uranium (or maybe not) in Africa, set against the long reach of the American security state. “As a storyteller,” Johnson told me in an email exchange about the book, “I’m drawn to realistic, contemporary situations and to figures caught up in danger and chaos.” Indeed. Chaos, we might say, was his métier.

At the end of his novella “Train Dreams,” which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, he describes a carny act featuring a wolf-boy — a contrivance, yes, although once he starts to howl, he taps into something more visceral or authentic, our longing to connect. “He laid his head back,” Johnson writes, “until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a road that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and of the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moan-music of bagpipes.” That’s a single sentence, and it works like a piece of music, making its meaning clear through sound. At the same time, Johnson reminds us, this is fleeting; “And suddenly it all went black,” he concludes. “And that time was gone forever.”

What does that mean, that question of the finite, in regard to Johnson and his work? It’s tempting to define him as a mystic or a recluse, which he was and also wasn’t, but it’s more accurate to remember him for his engagement, his restlessness. Over nearly half a century — his debut, the poetry chapbook “The Man Among the Seals,” was published in 1969 when he was 19 — he wrote plays and verse, stories, novels and essays; he reported, for venues such as Harper’s and Esquire, from Liberia and Kabul. He wrote presciently, and counter-intuitively, about American politics, especially of the libertarian strain.

Perhaps my favorite of all his essays is “The Militia in Me,” published just months after Oklahoma City, in which he stares into the mirror and finds not complicity or judgment but an unlikely common ground. “This is a free country,” he insists. “I just want to be left alone.” Even this idea, however, comes to us supercharged, both by the threat of government intrusion and by Johnson’s deeply moral point of view. “I believe the State should be resisted whenever it encroaches,” he acknowledges. “But the bombers of that building will demonstrate for us something we don’t want demonstrated: There’s no trick to starting a revolution. Simply open fire on the State; the State will oblige by firing back. What’s harder is to win a revolution, and the only victory worthy of the name will be a peaceable one.”

Ultimately, what this indicates is an uncommon openness: not empathy, exactly, but something deeper and more profound. As a writer, as a thinker, as an observer, Johnson was, not unlike Orwell, relentless in exposing petty pieties, turning our assumptions inside out. I’ve never read another writer like him, and now I never will.

And yet, free pass or exemption? The burning heart of Johnson’s achievement is that he understood exemptions are not just impossible but also unnecessary, that transcendence can always find us, even in the final moments of our lives. “He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it,” he writes at the end of his first novel, “Angels” (1983), imagining the execution of his protagonist. “But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And another coming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come. That’s it. That’s the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.”

I don’t pray, so I’ll leave that for another reader, another human being. When all is said and done, though — and whatever else he may have gone through in his time of dying — I hope that this is how his final breaths played out.

Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.” A 2015 Guggenheim fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

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