I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.
Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.
I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.
Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:
I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.
They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.
‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.
‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.
‘He’s still down there.’
‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’
‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.
‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’
‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’
I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.
That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.
His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.