Death was Denis Johnson’s subject: the already dead, the dying but not yet dead and the rush of life in its last seconds. In Angels (1983), his first novel, Johnson describes his protagonist’s final moments. Bill Houston, a petty criminal and heavy drinker, is facing the death penalty after killing a security guard:
He felt he could hold his breath for ever – no problem. Boom, boom. Even as his heart accelerated, it seemed to him inexplicably that his heart was slowing down. You can get right in between each beat, and let the next one wash over you like the best and biggest warm ocean there ever was. His eyes were on fire. He hated to shut them, but they hurt. He wanted to see. Boom! Was there ever anything as pretty as that one? Another coming … boom! Beautiful! They just don’t come any better than that. He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realised he was taking it. 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.
Johnson died from liver cancer in 2017, at the age of 67. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a collection of stories, was published posthumously. It’s a memento mori throughout. In ‘Triumph over the Grave’, the unnamed narrator, a writer, says he knows it’s the convention in ‘these semi-autobiographical tales – these pseudo-fictional memoirs – to disguise people’s names but I haven’t done that’. His friend Darcy Miller, who is dying of liver cancer, turns out to have published under the name D. Hale Miller – Hale was Johnson’s middle name. Johnson creates a fictional narrator to write about a writer whose name he shares, while claiming that he can’t be bothered to create a fiction. The narrator concludes his account of dead or dying friends with a careless aside: ‘It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.’ It’s a way of being both alive and dead within a single sentence.
In the early 1970s Johnson did an MFA at the University of Iowa and came under the influence of Raymond Carver, who had yet to receive his late acclaim and was still in full-blown drinking mode. Johnson followed suit – going, as he put it, ‘from prodigy to prodigal in a hurry’. (His first collection of poetry, The Man among the Seals, had appeared in 1969, when he was only nineteen.) A spell in a psychiatric unit at the age of 21 was followed by eight years of drug abuse (‘heroin, alcohol, grass and any pills that came my way’) and periods of homelessness. All this fed into his fiction. Angels focused on two drifters, Bill and Jamie, as they ricochet across an America of low-rent motels and darkened bars. Like his woozy, strung-out couple, Johnson’s language has at once a narcotic rush and a surreal haziness. Abrupt blackouts, leaps in time and odd, terrifying moments of hallucinatory clarity dissolve the rational world. Handcuffed and drugged-up, Jamie is raped in a sordid hotel bedroom.
Johnson’s most vital characters are battered by life. He chose to tell what he called ‘stories of the fallen world’, in the belief that the marginal and exploited, ‘junkyard angels’, are more likely than anyone else to achieve some form of enlightenment. In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), Johnson’s fourth novel, Leonard English, a failed suicide, gives up his job as a medical equipment salesman in Kansas and moves to Provincetown, Massachusetts to become a private detective. He’s another drifter, a voyeuristic onlooker, who visits drag shows, develops a crush on a lesbian and goes to church, desperate to find some way of connecting:
Spiritual things, questions like what was really wanted of a person and just how far would God go in being God – he couldn’t have said what exactly but he guessed it was the depth of these conundrums, the way he could spend an afternoon thinking about them and never get anywhere but feel he’d made great strides – something anyway had dizzied him and for a while he couldn’t function. Stepping off a chair with a rope around his neck and hanging there for a minute had broken the spell.
Johnson experienced a religious awakening while in rehab in his late twenties. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is his most overtly theological novel and prepared the ground for Jesus’ Son (1992), the collection of short stories that made Johnson’s name, but overshadowed his later fiction.
The elements of his early work all came together in Jesus’ Son: the twisted, down-and-out characters, the disconnected narrative fragments, the sensory world, the interest in the distortion and clarity drugs can bring, the outbreaks of sudden violence and the aching desire for redemption. It was written when Johnson’s own need for ‘salvation’ had become acute. He had caught malaria after a failed assignment in the Philippines for Esquire; his second marriage had collapsed, and he found himself living in a tent in his own garden, owing the IRS $10,000. The different narratives are linked by a semi-autobiographical persona, a recovering addict called Fuckhead. It was Johnson’s own nickname in the 1970s: ‘It struck me as a label to warn others: don’t be around this guy too much, he’s going to do something disastrous.’ The decision not to disguise himself (‘eventually we’re all outed in one way or another’) made Johnson’s narrative voice more urgent.
The Fuckhead persona allowed him to balance the search for spiritual enlightenment against the immediacy of an experiential rush. Fuckhead’s drug trips could be a modern pilgrim’s progress. The junkie is a sinner who goes all the way, a dark angel or inverted saint. Fuckhead’s immediate quest is to score drugs and carry out the small-time criminal acts necessary to pay for them, but he’s also searching for meaning. This duality is embodied in the title of the collection, a reference to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’: ‘When I’m rushing on my run,/And I feel just like Jesus’ son,/And I guess that I just don’t know.’ Drugs furnish Fuckhead with the illusion that he can foresee death and danger: ‘I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.’ But he doesn’t try to forestall the disasters he anticipates. ‘I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.’ It isn’t that he’s indifferent to suffering; he’s actively drawn to it.
Down the hall came the wife. 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.
‘Car Crash while Hitchhiking’ ends with Fuckhead dismissing the victims of the accident: ‘And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.’ All of the stories end with things falling apart – or in abrupt violence: car crashes, shootings, overdoses, burglaries, abortions. Often, he addresses the reader, inviting us to share in, or stand in judgment over, his misdeeds: ‘How could I do it, how could a person go that low? … Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.’
The stories circle the question of Fuckhead’s self-contradictory behaviour. One minute he helps a stranger home, the next he threatens to beat up a woman whose husband has sold him bad drugs. ‘Fuckhead’s very hostile but at the same time he’s worshipful,’ Johnson explained. ‘He displaces his hopes by attaching them to the kind of person he’s going to run into on a train – he’s not going to find anybody, male or female – yet he keeps thinking he wants something transcendent expressed to him.’ The move to redemption comes in the last story, ‘Beverly Home’, an assisted care facility where Fuckhead, now sober, is employed to touch people, literally and symbolically:
It was part of my job to touch people. The patients had nothing to do but stumble or wheel themselves through the wide halls in a herd. Traffic flowed in one direction only … I walked against the tide, according to my instructions, greeting everybody and grasping their hands or squeezing their shoulders, because they needed to be touched, and they didn’t get much of that. I always said hello to a grey-haired man in his early forties, vigorous and muscular, but completely senile. He’d take me by the shirtfront and say things like, ‘There’s a price to be paid for dreaming.’ I covered his fingers with my own.
In the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son, Johnson played the part of a man with a hunting knife in his eye – from the story ‘Emergency’, in which Fuckhead is working as hospital orderly when a stabbing victim is admitted to the ER. Johnson liked to quote Conrad’s introduction to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, where he writes that he wants ‘by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything.’ ‘Emergency’ is structured around a series of surreal images: the man with a knife in his eye, eight baby rabbits cut from the belly of their mother; the drive-in movie seen through an autumn blizzard. The collection as a whole is punctuated by nightmarish visuals: a baby lolling in the back seat of a crashed car feeling its own cheeks; a woman flying through the air, tied to a kite being pulled along by a speedboat; the patient Fuckhead shaves, uncovering the marks of a bullet that once passed clean through his head; a Mennonite woman, ‘hair pinned up and covered with a white skullcap’, whom Fuckhead spies on as she showers.
Johnson never stopped writing about himself, though he did so at various removes. He began his magnum opus, Tree of Smoke (2007), shortly after Jesus’ Son. It’s a densely detailed attempt to rework Moby-Dick and to understand the nature of American obsession, of madness and evil. It took him fourteen years to finish. The result is a 600-page hollowed-out historical epic with a huge cast of characters. Johnson splices together the lives of some of those caught up in the Vietnam War: four American servicemen, two male Vietnamese collaborators – on different sides – and a female Canadian charity worker. The presence of Vietnam is felt throughout his fiction. Jesus’ Son has a draft-dodger hitching his way to Canada, Fiskadoro (1985) has a centenarian woman, daughter of an English man and Vietnamese wife, who escaped as a child from Saigon via a helicopter. The same helicopter pilot appears in Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, whose protagonist, Lenny, avoided the draft, and is haunted by the ghost of the GI who took his place and was killed instead of him.
Tree of Smoke displays the collective madness of US policy in Vietnam: the insane gap between the proclaimed ideals and the squalid vicious atrocities perpetrated in their name. There’s one moment of pure Jacobean horror, again connected with the act of seeing. After a bloody fight during the Tet Offensive, American GIs hang a VC prisoner by his wrists from a banyan tree. ‘There’s something I want this sonabitching muhfucker to see,’ one soldier shouts, scooping out the man’s eyes with the spoon of his Swiss army knife. ‘He dropped the knife in the gore at his feet and grabbed the man’s eyeballs hanging by the purple optic nerves and turned the red veiny side so that the pupils looked back at the empty eye sockets and the pulp of the cranium. “Take a good look at yourself, you piece of shit.”’ This is ostensibly a political novel, but Johnson is really writing about his family. He was the son of an official in the US Information Agency. The family was always on the move: Tokyo, Manila, the suburbs of Washington DC – always in communities of ‘diplomats and military folks, including CIA and FBI’. Tree of Smoke is an attempt to come to terms with his father, seen as an embodiment of Cold War rectitude.
The autobiographical elements in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are more scattered than in Johnson’s other work, but each of its five stories has the feel of a memoir or confession. Characters from his earlier fiction resurface: it’s as if he’s using the book to revisit his life and work. In the story ‘Strangler Bob’, the psycho-killer Dundun, from Jesus’ Son, returns to befriend the narrator, Dink, who seems to be Fuckhead by another name. Released from the county jail, Dundun, ‘a nasty little Neanderthal’, robs, kills and hides out with Dink; he gets him addicted to heroin. The title of another story, the romantic-sounding ‘Starlight on Idaho’, is taken from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Centre. It contains a series of bizarre, unsent letters written by an addict called Mark (who might as well be Fuckhead) to his grandmother and ex-girlfriends: ‘Just to catch you up. In the last five years I’ve been arrested about eight times, shot twice, not twice on one occasion, but once on two different occasions, etc etc, and I think I got run over once but I don’t even remember it.’ He also writes to the pope, confiding that ‘there really is a Devil, he really does talk to me and I think it might be coming from some Antabuse giving me side effects.’ ‘Dear Satan,’ he writes. ‘You think I didn’t recognise you that time?’ Since Mark can never atone for the suffering he’s inflicted, Satan is alive to him and terrifyingly present: ‘Devil laughing so close I saw the veins in his teeth … And the cave was his mouth like a bathroom full of stink and his tongue popped with cheap sweat.’
Other narrators are more easy-going, but the surface of Johnson’s prose remains as unstable as his characters’ minds. In the title story, Bill Whitman seems at first to be the anti-Fuckhead: a successful 62-year-old ad man, educated at Columbia, who worked for the New York Post and spent years making TV commercials ‘just off Madison Avenue’ before moving to San Diego. The story starts by accumulating unrelated incidents and comically absurd moments: at a dinner party a woman can’t bring herself to kiss the scar tissue of a man’s severed leg; the brother of a man with Tourette’s hates his sibling’s persistent compulsion to shout about penises; Whitman’s drunken ex-boss burns an expensive artwork simply because he can. In a call with his dying ex-wife, Whitman confesses his marital infidelities, but wonders if it’s really his first wife he’s talking to. Then, in passing, the narrator suddenly asks the reader whether, like him, you walk in the middle of the night ‘in your bathrobe and tasselled loafers … well out of your neighbourhood and among a lot of closed shops’ searching for ‘certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you’.
Seeking an epiphany to ‘squirrel away in his soul’, Whitman walks into a ‘dim tavern’ at one in the morning and sees a woman crying:
She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. ‘I am a prisoner here,’ she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.
In ‘Car Crash while Hitchhiking’, Fuckhead was insulated from mortality by youth and drugs: other people’s reaction to violence and death seemed a thrill worth seeking. Here, Whitman may not have sought out the despairing woman – but he still watches in ‘ecstasy’ and offers no comfort. Is this the Mystery, that the spectacle we like to watch is the misery of others? Whitman and Fuckhead are both voyeurs, responding to the purity of a sufferer’s emotion. ‘Write naked. Write in blood. Write in exile,’ Johnson once demanded in a memo to his writing students. The name of the narrator in ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ is an ironic allusion to one of his literary heroes: Walt Whitman’s ‘expansive spirit, his generosity, his eagerness to love’, Johnson claimed, influenced him ‘not just as a writer, but as a person’. But Bill Whitman is a passionless ad man, more Prufrock than poet. He is the last of Johnson’s desolate figures, fending off the darkness. A corporate imposter, he knows the vacuity of the American Dream. His memoir concludes on a note of defeat. ‘I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.’