In an article titled “Bikers for Jesus,” Denis Johnson described himself flippantly as “a Christian convert, but one of the airy, sophisticated kind.” It was the sort of claim he made often, and it points to one of the central problems in his work. Johnson’s writing is full of street-corner prophets and enigmatic religious language, but it’s hard to decide whether these elements are poetic tropes or articulations of a deeper kind of religious feeling. Johnson never offered any guidance. In 1993, he sat for an interview about spiritual themes in his writing, and his answers were slippery and confusing. He talked about television and secular culture, the Jungian notion that spirituality will express itself one way or another and the idea that all novels spring from the same impulse as the Bible. The nature of Johnson’s own belief seems to have been inexpressible. Late in life, he’d given up trying to explain. “If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have,” he said in 2013. “I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.”
And yet these people do turn up, again and again. Johnson, who died last year, wrote in many genres, but the through line in all his work is “God”: God the metaphor, God the stylistic trope, God the real and eternal being. In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), the hero is a Catholic struggling with his belief. There are people in Fiskadoro (1985) who worship Bob Marley, and there’s a woman who prays to a loa named “Atomic Bomber Major Colonel Overdoze.” In Angels (1983), religion is worse than drugs—you can lose yourself in it more completely. In Tree of Smoke (2007), a Vietnam-era spy novel, there’s a psyops figure who dreams of weaponizing religious feeling in the fight against communism. On and on it goes.
When I was nineteen, I read Johnson’s 1992 story cycle Jesus’ Son, which is about a heroin addict whose friends call him “Fuckhead.” I was a novelist who hadn’t written a novel yet, and I was interested in Jesus’ Son because of its texture: fragmentary, episodic, surprisingly mixed in its tone. Fuckhead, who is also the narrator, and who doesn’t object to his nickname, has an innocence that gives the book a surprising delicacy—it’s more like Catcher in the Rye than Requiem for a Dream. But I was also a drug addict, and Jesus’ Son spoke to me more urgently on that level. It was a plausible rendering of my own desperation. It did not seem didactic or bogus or awkwardly self-serious, like the recovery memoirs I sometimes tried to read. It offered a kind of understanding that I hadn’t found elsewhere. At the same time, however, it was dense with angels and visions and skies “as blue and brainless as the love of God.” I was worried about that religious language. If it turned out that Johnson subscribed to some theological program, then maybe I was misreading Jesus’ Son; maybe the comfort it gave me was fraudulent. I wanted to believe in art, not God—I saw salvation in the one and ruin in the other. Which is why, when I got sober, I stayed away from the book for many years. I was afraid of what I’d find.
Johnson was born in Munich in 1949 and then raised in East Asia. His father worked for the U.S. State Department, and the opaque, steamy, spy-haunted Manila of Tree of Smoke was the world of his youth. He was able to publish a volume of poetry in 1969, at the age of nineteen, but even though he earned a B.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in the five years that followed, he lost the better part of the Seventies to drugs and alcohol. This was an experience that not only transformed him but would also come to define him, fairly or unfairly, in the minds of many readers. He quit heroin in the mid-Seventies, quit alcohol a few years later and stopped smoking marijuana by the time he published his first novel, Angels. He worked steadily after that, producing novels and stories, a novella, more poetry, a handful of brilliant plays, a vivid book of reportage and some film and television scripts. But it is Jesus’ Son for which he’s likely to be remembered.