Saturday, May 27, 2017

Denis Johnson, R.I.P.

     In general-education contemporary literature courses, I almost always taught Denis Johnson's "Emergency," and would often show the dramatization of the knife-in-the-eye scene with Jack Black as part of the film adaptation of Jesus' Son. I'd focus discussion on the three real or faux rescues or "life savings" in the story--the man with the knife, the rabbits, and the A.W.O.L. "boy" Hardee being driven to Canada, but I'd try to make time for Johnson's famous lines about the past as a rolled up scroll. Often I'd compare and contrast the role of substance use and abuse in the story to others such as Robert Stone's "Helping," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." Once or twice I played the Lou Reed song "Heroin" that I assume the title of the Johnson collection came from. It wasn't until today that I learned that Johnson's story collection was partly inspired by Isaac Babel's Red Calvary stories, and, well, that is so cool. 
I like Jesus' Son and Angels, but Denis Johnson, great writer, was never my favorite. I believe I found Angels on my own as a Vintage paperback the winter I earned $8.00 per hour to be the manager of a remainders-only seasonal bookstore. I always enjoyed--and saw it as irony--that Philip Roth blurbed for the book because I don't connect Johnson with Roth, and I doubt you would either. I also found Exley's A Fan's Notes with his two others there, and the guy who trained me pointed out that I should grab a hardcover in a case of Chaim Potok's The Chosen, although I'm almost positive that to this day, I've seen the movie but haven't read the book.
Back to Johnson, I always thought it was somewhat of a cliche, all these 20-something MFA dudes high-fiving at AWP, "Drugs, confusion, and beautiful language. Man, Jesus' Son understands me." And I wonder if anyone who shows up online or at AWP as a publisher gets at least a dozen queries a year, maybe a month, that liken the possible collection to Jesus' Son.
Anyway, Johnson was a prolific major award-winner and seemingly financially successful, both as a writer and as a publisher, which makes it all the more bizarre, and makes me wonder if the guy even existed, or if he just showed up as our hallucination of what a writing life could be like in America.
I've never read Tree of Smoke, and I didn't realize that it would win the National Book Award when I read a superficial review trashing it as a joke, and I wonder if the writer of the review, B. R. Myers, is embarrassed to offer such a petty unjust reading of the book to the world. Or is this part of the price of fame? Was Johnson happy and successful enough at that point that he could laugh off a negative review? Or would it bother him even then? I don't know, but an online obituary says he never read them. It's tempting to track down Myers and see what's become of him. He's probably just working his ass off to survive as best he can.
Johnson: Great writer. Dead writer. . . what else?
Most likely a guy impersonating Denis Johnson once tweeted back to me something clever, but I can't remember what he said. Thankfully I can search, find, and add the link here. It's the two "n"s in his first name that leads me to believe he's a phony, and the response seems to have been to a Maurice Blanchot quotation: "This feeling of. . . uselessness of what I am doing is linked to this other feeling that nothing is more serious." But in fact, that was my response, and the original twonversation was about a typo, "distruption."
Somewhat in silly tribute, I'm reading and enjoying Train Dreams now, and Johnson, or our countrymen or even our ancestors, tortures an unlucky "Chinaman" in the opening scene, although the rail worker dangles, leaps, and survives. No doubt Johnson saw the United States very clearly. I'm glad the book is short, so I can do something to acknowledge his passing that doesn't take too much time away from the half zillion things I should be doing. Denis Johnson has passed on, but you and I are still here.

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