David Culberg is a lawyer in Chicago. He reads books on the train.
The Great American Novel was written in 1992. It came disguised as 130 pages of barely-connected short stories about a sibylline junkie named Fuckhead. In the thirty years since Jesus’ Son, literary critics and stoned undergraduates alike have struggled to articulate its appeal. We know we love it; we can’t agree on what it’s about.
Denis Johnson was born in West Germany in 1949 and died in California in 2017. He had spent his life on the thin margins between freedom and subjection. His characters were dreamy losers who sought beauty at rock bottom. In one book he described them as being “proud of their clichés yet full of helpless poetry.” In another he wrote, “All around them men drank alone, staring out of their faces.” (If that were the only sentence he’d ever written, he would still deserve to be canonized.)
In another he wrote, “All around them men drank alone, staring out of their faces.” (If that were the only sentence he’d ever written, he would still deserve to be canonized.)
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Johnson published only poetry for his first 34 years. The poems were sometimes good, and more optimistic than his prose would prove to be. He published his first novel, Angels, in 1983. It follows a runaway and an ex-con and the down-and-outers they meet on a cross-country Greyhound trip to Phoenix. The book works as a knowing transition from Johnson’s poetry to his signature savage prose. One set piece features an execution chamber inscribed with Wallace Stevens’s “Death is the mother of beauty,” as if to test the limitations of poetic beauty against life’s horrors. He introduces a theme that would recur in his work: the malleability of words, their capacity to carry multiple—even contradictory—meanings at once. In Angels, the protagonists are drawn closer by the woman’s sexual assault:
They started calling it The Rape, and it came to stand for everything: for coming together while falling apart; for loving each other and hating everybody else; for moving at breakneck speed while getting nowhere; for freezing in the streets and melting in the rooms of love.
Thus can words and lives be reclaimed.
Johnson and I crossed in the fall of 2001, when he spent a few days at Brandeis University. Between readings and creative writing workshops, he stopped by my Freshman Intro-to-Lit course. We’d been assigned The Name of the World in anticipation of his appearance. A meditation on grief, The Name of the World inhabits the perspective of an academic as he drifts through the half-decade after a car crash kills his wife and daughter. I liked the novel fine, and I liked the large Westerner (then living in—no kidding—Good Grief, Idaho) with rough hands who read to us from it. I dared to ask him a question. Name’s plot centers on the narrator’s encounters with a siren named Flower Cannon in a series of improbable locations, and I asked if it wasn’t a cheat to craft a plot so reliant on extraordinary coincidence. Plus or minus a word he responded, “I’ve got ten novels in me. Why would I write about anything that’s less than extraordinary?”
I returned to The Name of the World two years later, at a time of intense personal grief. The book’s tone, which had originally struck me as muted and laconic, suddenly read as pastoral, worldly.
I returned to The Name of the World two years later, at a time of intense personal grief. The book’s tone, which had originally struck me as muted and laconic, suddenly read as pastoral, worldly. Johnson captured the way grief works obliquely, without design, and triggered by seemingly random fragments: Strangers’ faces, weather patterns, words. As Flower recounts a gauzy memory about a girl from her childhood, the narrator has a powerful realization.
“Later I remembered the little girl. I’m sure she was watching me. She wasn’t blind.”
—This was what flooded the basement with fear, this simple statement: “I’m sure she was watching me. She wasn’t blind.” What connected these words from Flower’s lips to the accident that killed my family? From them I understood that I could no longer bear my daughter’s death. It was going to break me. And I would have to let it.
This is exactly right.
I read the rest of his books. Bookstores tended to carry one or two Johnson titles, and I read them as I found them. Fiskadoro. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. These books taught me how to read America. When I finally read Jesus’ Son, it set my hair on fire. The opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” is nothing less than a representation of the human spirit, wretched and hopeful. As described in the opening lines, Fuckhead takes a series of rides from
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping . . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon . . . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student . . . And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri.
Fuckhead instantly divines that the family will be in an accident, but sticks around because “[t]hey said they’d take me all the way.” The ensuing scenes are horrific. Blood spatters, a mother cries for her baby, and a dying man hangs out a window. Fuckhead ends up at a hospital, lightly hurt, and witnesses the dead man’s wife receive the bad news:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
When I thought I’d read all of Johnson’s work, I encountered Train Dreams in a Paris Review short story anthology I was gifted called The Book of People With Problems. It tells the surreal life story of a wanderer named Robert Grainier, spanning a bit of the 19th Century and much of the 20th. He builds the Spokane Washington Railroad; he fells trees for the Great War effort; his wife and daughter are presumed dead in a forest fire; he encounters his daughter many years later, she having apparently been raised by wolves. Like many of Johnson’s characters, Grainier has the gift and burden of second-sight.
The story is elegiac and mystical. It’s America’s creation myth, its One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The story is elegiac and mystical. It’s America’s creation myth, its One Hundred Years of Solitude. Train Dreams tracks America’s rise from rock bottom, and mourns the poetry lost in its success. The story gradually attracted attention and is now available as a standalone novella, no longer my secret.
As I’ve had children I’ve returned again to The Name of the World and found new truths. I’m particularly struck by Johnson’s description of the ubiquity and power of early childhood nicknames. Here the narrator talks about his daughter Elsie:
Curious to say, her name wasn’t Elizabeth, or anything else to do with Elsie. She was Huntley, a name arguably a lot nicer, but as a baby she had a stuffed animal—these days they call them “sleeping animals”—named Elsie by the manufacturers, and labeled Elsie across her bearish belly. In that world, in the baby’s crib, in that epoch, identities flowed back and forth. There weren’t even fantasies then—all was fantasy. Through a kind of enchantment the child Huntley appropriated Elsie the bear’s name and kept it. The bear kept it, too. Everybody ended up Elsie, all the sleeping animals, also Anne. And for a little while even I was Elsie.
Exactly right again. And, of course, new insights on grief follow. See the kicker to the aforementioned paragraph: “Everything became Elsie, and in a manner of speaking everything still is. In losing Anne I’d lost the woman in my life. But in losing Elsie, I’d lost all of us.”
The name of the world.
Before he died, Johnson wrote his ten novels and no more. Contemplating his death, I’ve puzzled over a seeming anomaly in his work. For a writer so committed to hyper-realism, why do his best characters possess supernatural clairvoyance? It may be because he needs them to see despair that would otherwise be unimaginable, and to choose life anyway. Fuckhead sees the car crash, and hangs in for the astounding widow’s cry. Grainier anticipates his family’s destruction and keeps returning for the majesty of a lupine daughter. Unlike these characters, we readers that Johnson leaves behind aren’t clairvoyant. But we know enough, and we hit our inevitable moments of despair we will have his legacy: the inclination to see the great beauty only afforded by the stripping away of joy’s gauzy veil.
And Jesus’ Son is about those moments of beauty that we keep. Fuckhead is entirely unreliable as a narrator. Two of the eleven stories are revealed in the final paragraphs to be wholly misremembered. The truths in these stories are the hard nuggets of emotional transcendence embedded in the hazed-over narrative. A glimpse of a nude parasailing redhead during a petty burglary; a spectral drive-in-movie screen glimpsed through a blizzard, “angels . . . descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” Most affectingly, Fuckhead remembers a generous bartender with the hindsight of a shaky sobriety:
She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I'll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.