One of the rare breed of writers whose name must always be prefixed with ‘the great’, the great Denis Johnson was a singular talent, a writer who could turn his hand to any form and smash it. He was a brilliant poet and he wrote some amazing novels too, not least the minimalist classic Jesus’ Son (which has figured more than once in these anthologies), the minor miracle novella Train Dreams (ditto) and his stunning debut Angels. Even in his “lesser” works like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the crystal-clear imagery and sparse poeticism of his prose is untouchable. In this collection, he proves that he could write stellar non-fiction too. It covers a lot of ground – Christian bikers spreading the gospel, loners panning for gold in the Alaskan wilderness, Somalian militias and much more besides – but this one is a real highlight. In it, he writes of a trip to the Rainbow Gathering, a modern-day Gathering of the Tribes where hippies, mystics and dreamers of all stripes join together to commune in the spirit of peace and love. “I who have had so much peace and love,” he writes, “have never believed in either one.”
He attends the festival with Joey, a friend he hasn’t seen for thirty years, in an attempt to recapture the spirit of their hippy youths in the distant past, and get high on Shrooms while they’re at it. Anyone in the know will tell you it’s virtually impossible to describe the psychedelic experience on paper – mere words are laughably insufficient – but he captures the essence of it beautifully.
I crawl into my tent. It’s four feet away but somehow a little bit farther off than the end of time… it’s been somewhere between twenty five minutes and twenty five thousand years since I ate the mushrooms… and the drums, the drums, the drums. Fifty thousand journeys to the moon and back in every beat… Four hours later I succeed in operating the zipper on my sleeping bag: tantamount to conquering Everest. I got in and held on.
His observations about the festival are shot through with wry humour but also a great deal of affection for the other participants, especially the “whole new batch in their teens and twenties, still with their backpacks, bare feet, tangled hair, their sophomoric philosophising, their glittery eyes, their dogs named Bummer and Bandit and Roach and Kilo and Dark Star”, even though he has the grizzled old-timer’s knowledge that the dream they’re chasing is an empty one. He seems like a well-kept secret; mention his name and more often than not you’ll be met with a blank face, but every now and again you’ll get the smile of recognition that says, oh man, so you’ve read him too… One of the greats, for me.
First published in The Paris Review 155, Summer 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond, Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2001