From the margins, great truths

Times Staff Writer

At a ceremony in New York last Wednesday night, just four days after the death of Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel, “Tree of Smoke,” a sprawling, Mailer-esque phantasmagoria about the war in Vietnam. Although these two events have nothing to do with each other, I can’t help noting certain resonances.

Regardless of what you think about Mailer, his death is one more signifier of a literary culture in transition, in which the old guard is disappearing faster than we can figure out who might fill the void. This is why Johnson’s prize is so compelling -- because he may be the one American writer of his generation (the generation raised on Vietnam and Woodstock) who consistently writes with that overarching standard of engagement, who’s not playing games but going after something fundamental, using literature to get at the essence of who we are.

For Johnson, engagement is most often an interior process. If not quite a recluse, he’s gone out of his way to live at the margins of society, both physically (he’s a resident of rural Idaho) and in a psychic sense. His books explore the fringes of experience -- dealing with drifters caught in a universe they can’t make sense of, aware that transcendence may be out there but that it is always, somehow, out of reach. “I’m living in the Bible’s world right now,” he notes in “Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond,” his 2001 book of reportage, “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.”


That passage was written about Somalia, but it might as well be anywhere. As Johnson sees it, the modern world is just another wilderness through which we must find a passage, with nothing to guide us but our own internal sensibilities.

Often, this emerges in the most unlikely places. In “Beverly Home,” the final story in his magnificent 1992 short fiction collection “Jesus’ Son,” a recovering drug addict finds himself drawn to a Mennonite woman he watches through the window of her town house. “I was lurking there in the dark,” Johnson writes, “trembling, really, from the pit of my stomach out to my fingertips. Two inches of crack at the curtain’s edge, that’s all I could have, all I could have, it seemed, in the whole world.”

“Jesus’ Son” is Johnson’s masterpiece, the most potent work of American fiction in the last 20 years. The pieces here walk a fine line between brutality and inspiration, which in Johnson’s world are really just two sides of the same coin.

It’s a peculiarly modern (or even postmodern) condition, fueled by drugs and degradation, but also by an elusive sense of wonder, which subtly deepens everything. “We lived in a tiny, dirty apartment,” Johnson writes in the story “Out on Bail.” “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. Generally 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. There was no touching the hem of mystery, no little occasion when any of us thought -- well, speaking for myself only, I suppose -- that our lungs were filled with light, or anything like that. I had a moment’s glory that night, though. I was certain I was here in this world because I couldn’t tolerate any other place.”

Here we have Johnson’s aesthetic in a nutshell -- hard-boiled, yet imbued with an appreciation of the ineffable. God is a presence, although not necessarily a comforting one. In his 1991 novel “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” Johnson puts it this way: “God is a universe and a wall. How many false alarms? How many more? How many bum steers? . . . But there is a pattern, a web of coincidence. God . . . is the chief conspirator.”

What do we do in such a circumstance? For Johnson, the answer is part of a conversation in which we try to come to terms with the ambiguity of the universe without setting our ambivalence or terror aside. “There are no coincidences to a faithful person, a person of faith, a knight of faith,” he writes in “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man.” “[T]he mystery is the Mystery.”


Such concerns emerge throughout “Tree of Smoke,” which frames the Vietnam War as a matter of metaphysics, a battle for our national soul. The irony is that even as it has brought Johnson a new level of attention, it is his weakest novel: rambling, melodramatic, veering between the brilliant and the banal. And yet, it’s hard to argue with anything that puts Johnson front and center, that brings his sensibilities to the fore.

For me, Johnson is best when he’s at his most particular: in the interiority of “Jesus’ Son” or the visionary textures of “Already Dead” (subtitled “A California Gothic”), his 1997 epic of the North Coast near Mendocino, in which a disparate collection of lost souls -- ex-hippies, trust funders, New-Age seekers, psychopaths -- do their own odd dance of dissolution and desire.

These are strange books, no doubt about it, built on the notion that reality is a veil behind which we might discover the truer nature of things, if only we could see it for what it is. Occasionally, we are offered glimpses but that just adds to our confusion -- or, worse, puts our most essential selves at risk. “Did you think we were just thinking?” a character asks in “Already Dead.” “Thinking forbidden thoughts? Imagining heresies? Pretending to recognize moral systems as instruments of oppression and control?”

What Johnson is saying is that this is not a game but deadly serious, that what’s at stake is how we continue in the face of mysteries so large they threaten to overwhelm us -- and ultimately will. The only answer is to continue moving forward, to accept our small graces and benedictions where we can.

Or, as he writes in the closing lines of “The Name of the World,” his piercing 2000 novel about a Midwestern professor who cannot reconcile the death of his wife and child in an accident: “[I] floated like prey in the talons of a hawk above a bare brown planet with nothing in it but two or three roads and a war; and continued day after day in a life I believe to be utterly remarkable.”


David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.