Literary Homage: Denis Johnson, American Dostoevsky

Denis Johnson’s spiritual vision was dark and more than a little scary but also supremely generous.

Photo: Cindy Johnson

The late Denis Johnson — he was one of the great imaginative writers of our time, and like all visionaries was sometimes misunderstood. Photo: Cindy Johnson

By Anthony Wallace

Denis Johnson died on May 24. The news came to me today, two days later, and came as something of a shock, since Johnson was only 67. I had expected him to live much longer, and to continue to push at the limits of his own talent in a way I always found thrilling, if not always perfect according to a more conventional literary standard. It was the imperfection, the sense of things as always a little off-kilter, including the sentences, that was part of the thrill—and part of the beauty, too. He was one of the great imaginative writers of our time, and like all visionaries was sometimes misunderstood, though he earned his share of fame and fortune. A classmate of mine in the Boston University MFA program once called him “talented but undisciplined.” Johnson had an unusual kind of discipline that was strong and sure enough to sometimes leave things a little messy, a little rough or unfinished, a little disconnected — just like the world he was describing, and for which he had such tender regard.

Perhaps one way to better understand or contemplate his singular achievement is to read a critic who did not understand him at all. Here is a shockingly negative review of his National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke.I won’t bother to summarize the review, but will only say that B. R. Meyers was clearly expecting Tree of Smoke to be a realistic Vietnam novel, or war book, or service book, or whatever, with conventionally believable soldiers and conventionally beautiful sentences—whatever they might look like. And it may be that Johnson, because he is associated with Iowa and with Raymond Carver, his most famous teacher, is still seen by some few readers as standing in that tradition of American realism. Certainly there is a realistic level in his books, as in Jesus’ Son where he convinces us that he knows what he’s talking about with respect to heroin addicts, life on the margins, the sepia-toned 70s, etc.

But Johnson was always after more than realism, or believability, or, one of my least favorite words, “verisimilitude.” He was always reaching for more, which is why he wrote poems, stories, novels, and plays. He wrote in different voices and genres and styles on different subjects and themes, but to me it was always about the reaching for more, the desire to get unstuck from the literal and the quotidian and really fly, whether it was one of his characters flying on heroin, or demonic possession, or Johnson himself flying through his beautiful imagination, and on the wings of his ecstatically beautiful sentences. Here is one from Train Dreams:

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.”

In a review for this journal I wrote that “In Train Dreams the world of beauty and terror is balanced as only our best writers have been able to balance those things. It is a world in which a ‘wolf-boy’ in the Rex Theater in 1935 wears ‘a mask of fur, and a suit that looked like fur but was really something else.’” Like the wolf boy, Johnson wrote what sometimes seemed to be gritty realism but which was always something else, which owed more to the transcendence-seeking Beats and Hippies (think of Leonard Cohen and his beautiful losers) than to Carver, more to the off-kilter comic-grotesque mysticism of Flannery O’Connor than to Hemingway—which means he was much closer to Dostoevsky than to Tolstoy. Indeed, a true appraisal would put Johnson squarely in the tradition of O’Connor and what I think of as the Irish Catholic line of descent (think also of Cormac McCarthy and Robert Stone), in which grace is never too far away but neither is the devil. It’s no accident that Johnson wrote a novel called Already Dead and called it a “California Gothic.” Read Chris Walsh’s review of that novel if you want to read a critic who got Johnson right, Dostoevsky and all.

Denis Johnson’s spiritual vision was dark and more than a little scary but also supremely generous, the terror balanced by beauty in that one always informs the other—the “deeper kind of realism” that O’Connor herself sought after—and it’s also no accident that he ended Tree of Smoke with what surely is his message, if he had one, and might well serve as his epitaph:

“The scene before her flattened, lost one of its dimensions, and the noise dribbled irrelevantly down its face. Something was coming. This moment, this very experience of it, seemed only the thinnest gauze. She sat in the audience thinking—someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lives, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.”

Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. More recently, he has published short fiction in The Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, and The Southern Review. This spring his short story “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” won a Pushcart Prize and will be published in the 2018 Pushcart anthology, due out in November.

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