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YOU START OUT CONFUSED & END UP MYSTIFIED: An appreciation of Denis Johnson

by Jason Hill Spalding MFA Coordinator of Student Services and Marketing MFA in Writing, Spalding University

The truth is, I agreed to do a blog entry almost without thinking.

Katy Yocom suggested I write something on Denis Johnson, who died shortly before the start of the Spring 2017 residency in Louisville. No doubt she’d heard me and others talking during residency about his recent death, and because I opened my big mouth during the closing faculty and staff meeting to suggest that faculty looking for post subjects could turn to current writing-related events like Hulu’s premier of A Handmaid’s Tale or Johnson’s death. There are a lot of writers I admire, and nearly as many that I’ve stolen from as I try to craft my own style. But there are very few writers whose use of language and approach to their subjects has given me as much motivation for close study as Johnson.

Jesus' Son

Johnson, who was only 67 when he died of liver cancer, had an impact outsized to the number and volume of his works. His reputation-making 1992 story collection Jesus’ Son is a slim book that blends anti-realist narratives with concrete images and characters, most often drawn from the margins of society. Who were these people? What world were they living in? How did we end up sharing it with them? They are us, it is ours, and we’ve always shared it but we didn’t see. And that is the rub. Johnson’s characters in Jesus’ Son inhabited our world, a world that is indifferent to our suffering but offers a peek into the transcendent, as in the hail storm near the end of his story “Work.” The stories in the collection expose to us a world that was always there but that few see and fewer still with the level of clarity his language invokes. It felt like a privilege to read the book and experience the emotional revelations that lurked beneath the stories of cast-offs, criminals, and addicts. There was always the unexpected in his language, words and sentences whose meaning was clear but whose construction and application seemed miraculous.  

When I discovered the volume during my second semester at Spalding, I was blown away by the staying power of Johnson’s language, which employed precise juxtapositions meant to move the reader rapidly between highs and lows, creating a feeling of vertigo and disorientation. One early story in the collection, “Out on Bail,” begins subtly laying the groundwork for confusion and disorientation in the first paragraph. The narrator of the story enters a bar called the Vine and discovers an old acquaintance named Jack Hotel drinking. Jack Hotel, “with his hair combed back and his face shining and suffering,” is having drinks bought for him by others in the bar and the whole experience, we are told, is “a sad, exhilarating occasion.” The use of adjectives on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum (shining vs. suffering, sad vs. exhilarating) creates a precarious balance that is emotionally true but objectively difficult for the reader to reconcile. The result is disorientation, not in the context of the story but in our view of reality, an experience which brings us closer to the often drug- or drink-addled state of mind of the characters.

In 2014, near the debut of his last novel, The Laughing Monsters, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I get bored quickly and try another style, another genre, another form.” This variation in approach is evident in the way his works regularly demonstrated a different approach to language, plot, and structure.

Tree of Smoke

Evidence of this can be seen in Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke, which swung the opposite way from Jesus’ Son in its use of language. Gone are the elaborately oppositional sentences. Dialogue goes on for pages, sometimes without breaks or dialogue tags, and veers between story, characterization, and theme. The novel’s narrative is supremely realistic, detailed and linear, yet even with a more direct approach, the murky world of intelligence operations during the Vietnam War leaves the reader with nearly the same sense of disorientation, of being lost in a jungle of motives and outcomes, that we encounter trying to understand the characters in his stories. And while plot exists in Tree of Smoke, it becomes visible only in the moment of a choice, or more disastrous, only after the choice has been made. Trying to untangle the meaning of any moment or event invariably leads Johnson’s characters into the wilderness where nothing makes sense except for the lack of sense.

The movement from the narrative style of Jesus’ Son to his mammoth novel reflects the same kind of mastery of extremes that characterized that smaller work. The same sort of shift is present in yet another work, the Pulitzer-nominated Train Dreams. For that work, Johnson changed direction again. Though his characters are again on the edge, this time it is the edge of expanding civilization, the frontier, using a style featuring sentences that were longer, almost meandering, and reflective to the point of rumination. The result is complete absorption in the concerns of the character, the order of nature, the time period, and the world that encompasses all of these.

All of this without so far mentioning that he also wrote drama, praiseworthy poetry, and deeply spiritual war reporting from places such as Libera, the Philippines, and Iraq.

Even after several years spent rereading Johnson closely, I am still left trying to understand just how he managed to write sentences, paragraphs, and whole books that defy breakdown. It’s just as a character in Tree of Smoke says:  “You start out confused and end up mystified.” Trying to find the unifying elements is nearly impossible. But it is possible to see at least one thing that binds the works together (other than possibly theme): Johnson’s writing, like the best of writing, was both impressively philosophical and utterly grounded. He found elements of both in his characters and their everyday and extraordinary situations, offering us the tantalizing possibility of redemption amid the transcendent madness that surrounds us. And he never blinked at the enormity of it all. Whatever his choice of style, the purpose was always the same: to tear open our perceptions with cool, serrated honesty and dive into the heart of his characters and the world we share with them. 

“To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it’s all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences,” Johnson said in that same LA Times interview.

The truth is, the world didn’t just lose a writer with Johnson’s death – it lost a seer, someone who looked at the same world we did and saw what was hiding in plain sight.

Denis Johnson


SpaldingwritersJN 147

Jason Hill is a Fiction alum of Spalding’s MFA in Writing and also holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. His short stories have appeared in The Austin Review and Tulane Review.


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