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.
Johnson later said that everything in Jesus’ Son had happened to him or to someone he knew. He said that his own nickname was Fuckhead. And the book does have the torrential quality of an anguished testimonial. Physical and emotional violence is everywhere: a man with a knife in his eye, dead friends, terrifying hallucinations. Most of the narrative happens in radical close-up, and often it isn’t clear where or when each episode is happening:
And with each step my heart broke for the person I would never find, the person who’d love me. And then I would remember I had a wife at home who loved me, or later that my wife had left me and I was terrified, or again later that I had a beautiful alcoholic girlfriend who would make me happy forever.
But Jesus’ Son isn’t simply a tragic rendering of the corresponding period in Johnson’s own life, and it isn’t a book about “addiction” or “recovery” in any conventional sense. There is a comic note in its representation of disaster. People try to pass counterfeit money they’ve made on Xerox machines. A man pretends to be Polish for no reason and then gives up the game, also for no reason. A “guru of the love generation” has eyeballs that “look like he bought them in a joke shop.” Fuckhead falls asleep at the wheel with a dead man in the back seat, but he doesn’t care at all. He says, “I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something and they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.” I was in Berkeley when I read the collection for the first time, and it was this combination of terror and absurdity that appealed to me so much. That was the way I saw my own troubles. I remember being drunk with some homeless people when the sprinklers went off in the park. We all got soaked, but none of us moved, and then a younger guy looked at me and said with fanatical seriousness: “They don’t want us to have any water.”
Jesus’ Son appealed to me at the level of the sentence and the scene, but there is something else going on too, and I was only dimly aware of it at the time. There is a beautiful airiness; a wide-eyed sensitivity. On every page there are lyrical transformations:
The women were blank, shining areas with photographs of sad girls shining in them.
In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face.
And there are moments when the camera pulls way back and we’re somewhere else entirely: “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere…” There is grit and pain and sad barroom light on every page, but there’s also a kind of peace, even a kind of joy. God peeks through everywhere. Infinity seeps under the doors.
In his relationship to the cultural transformations of the Sixties—not just drugs, but also the effect of the Vietnam War on that generation of young people, and the sense of betrayal and loss that the war entailed—Johnson bore a faint resemblance to contemporaries like Robert Stone, whose novel Dog Soldiers takes up many of the same themes. But just as often Johnson was described as distinctly and deeply “American,” like Thoreau, Melville or Whitman. This is a way of saying that Johnson was sui generis—a baffled alien picking through a dumpster behind the gas station. This is how he saw himself. “I can’t remember very many situations,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “where I had even the tiniest idea what the heck was going on. Meanwhile, you humans, you Earthlings—you all seem right at home.”
Johnson’s final collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published earlier this year, and in many ways it reprises Jesus’ Son. One story recycles a character from the earlier book; another is an account of an unhinged alcoholic drying out in a rehab facility; the other three are about settled older men who resemble Fuckhead in unmistakable ways. They are safe, they have jobs, they have a more-or-less tenable way of relating to other people, but they too are on the outside looking in. They too have a tendency to ecstatic dislocation. The writer-narrator of “Triumph over the Grave” is talking casually about his long career, for instance, and suddenly there’s this: “It has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
These dislocations happen everywhere in Johnson’s work, and they are also the moments when “God” or some other emblem of belief is most likely to appear. In Angels, a man committing a robbery notices how “every tiny thing in the place cried out with the fire of God.” Later, the man’s brother is suddenly conscious of the evil in his own heart: “It seemed to him—it was not the first time—that he belonged in Hell, and would always find himself joyful in its midst.” In every novel there are characters who lose track of themselves, sometimes abruptly and terrifyingly. They get lost and don’t find their way back for years and years. A patriotic CIA operative in Tree of Smoke disappears from the narrative, and when he turns up again he’s an arms dealer on death row. The title character in Fiskadoro loses his memory during a kind of religious rite. All of this suggests that what’s happening to Fuckhead is not only or not simply a result of his derangement, or else that his derangement is not only or not simply a result of drugs.
One way of accounting for Johnson’s religious imagery is to say that it’s actually poetic imagery; critics have always said that his best prose is close to poetry. This is misleading. Those moments of lyrical transformation are moments at which the substantive business of narrative is overtaken by another form of expression, but they occur in the context of prose fiction. In that sense, they are things that happen, and Johnson is careful to remind us of that. He plays each sublime moment off the everyday moments that come before and after. There’s a passage in which Fuckhead loses himself in a beautiful memory of a hailstorm—green light, young love—but he’s invoking that memory in order to describe the beauty of a sordid moment in a dirty bar. Sordid to everyone but him, that is. And there’s a moment when he’s in Seattle at sunset. He makes a series of rhapsodic and religiously charged claims—“only the demons inhabiting us could be seen”—but then he goes into another bar and has a cheery conversation about a giant pill full of ground-up psilocybin mushrooms. The story ends with the pill, not the celestial imagery.
Whatever “God” meant to Johnson in his private life, “God” in his fiction is a way of referring to those aspects of human experience that seem excessive or out of scale. It is the extra something—the charge that passes between a human being and the universe. At the same time, this “God” is an aspect of reality. An extraordinary vision is the organic product of ordinary experience. Eternity, in Johnson’s work, is a thing you can hold in your hands or throw against the wall. It’s also a thing that can throw you against the wall. There is a faith healer in Soul of a Whore who really does have the ability to speak to demons, for instance, but when he’s asked to perform an exorcism, he keeps asking the demon if he should sell his Motorola stock and buy an interest in a hot-dog company. The demon won’t say, but it doesn’t like the word “demon” and asks to be called “teenymeanymotherfucker.” Somehow that’s the essence of the thing: the joke, the dangerous reality, the easy commerce with an unpredictable everyday eternal.
When I picked up Jesus’ Son for the second time, I’d been sober for two years. I was worried that I’d find it tawdry and sensational, but instead I discovered a book about longing, about memory, about life on earth. I’d been thinking of the addict I’d been with horror and fury; I considered my memories dangerous and phony and I wanted to box them up and put them away. Jesus’ Son now seemed to offer a different way of relating to that former self, who after all was me, and whose experiences were mine. “Sometimes what I wouldn’t give,” Fuckhead says, “to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m., telling lies to one another, far from God.” I have the same thought every day, but it doesn’t mean that I want to be in a bar again, telling lies, far from God. It means that I’m the sum of what I’ve been. That I live in the same world I lived in back then. That I should be attentive to everything in it.
Nearly five years ago, Johnson told the Yale Literary Magazine that although he wasn’t conscious of the literary influence that Walt Whitman had on his work, he admired the poet’s generosity of spirit, his eagerness to love. He said that he took the introduction to Leaves of Grass as his personal manifesto, especially this passage:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
This statement preceded the inevitable question about spiritual themes in his work, which Johnson would not answer—it was a question he said he had “learned to run from.” But in a way, he had been elaborating an answer at great length, day after day, year after year, in book after book. “Belief,” for Johnson, may be hard to define, but the absence of belief—the absence of a certain sensitivity to the surprises of the world—is dangerous in a plain and simple way. In that direction lies nihilism, crime, a meaningless death. More than that, characters who don’t see in the right way are themselves difficult to see. Struggle, rage, love, no problem, but close your eyes and you begin to disappear.