‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

Many writers, myself included, have gone through a Denis Johnson phase. It never ends well. His poetic but brutal images are dangerously alluring – how the rich of Beverly Hills wander around with ‘their heads shot off by money’ or how the narrator strips copper wiring from a house, the walls collapsing ‘with a noise like old men coughing’. It’s hard enough to imitate his language but impossible to replicate Johnson’s complex affection for his characters. I feel relieved to have finally abandoned hope of ever writing like him.

First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to read or listen to. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologized

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

‘Emergency’ was my introduction to Denis Johnson. It came to me via The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, narrated by Tobias Wolff, who brilliantly delivers the heart and humor of this tale. It contains one of my favorite Johnson moments: his hero Fuckhead and another orderly, Georgie, high on pills stolen from the Catholic hospital where they work, stumble through a blizzard into an open field that they mistake for a military cemetery marked with rows of anonymous, identical grave markers. From above, the enormous faces of angels come bearing down on them through the clouds, “streaked with light and full of pity.” But then they realize that the angels are only actors in a movie projected on to an outdoor cinema in front of a row of plastic chairs, abandoned by the audience in the sudden spring storm. No one captures the absurdity, terror and fragile beauty of being alive quite like Johnson. Like the characters in ‘Emergency’, the cast of his linked collection Jesus’ Son are outcasts, drifters, addicts, but Johnson allows them a full range of experience—moments of tenderness, violence, grief, and revelation.

First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologised, including in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014

‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

I first came across Denis Johnson in my late teens, still living in Scotland and hanging out with artists though I was going to work in a psychiatric hospital every day. I loved American literature and I still love Jesus’ Son. I must have read it dozens of times.It’s a collection of 11 perfect, inter-related short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful, set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink.  Johnson sculpts his shambolic characters with heart-breaking honesty. But there’s always an underlying compassion, even if covered up by layers of trauma and dissociation. This story is told from the perspective of a seemingly homeless, clairvoyant, unnamed narrator who appears to have hitchhiked with several people involved in a devastating accident. Our narrator appears to have predicted the event.

“I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it glowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.”

This devastating piece is surely a masterclass in short story writing.

First published in Jesus’ Son, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992, and available to read online here

‘Hippies’ by Denis Johnson

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

‘The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden’ by Denis Johnson

Lovers of flash fiction might admire the way this story is structured, made up of a series of “vignettes” Denis Johnson explains modestly in the contributors’ notes in The Best American Short Stories 2015 that “came together in a sort of arrangement.” There are ten interconnected parts to the story, told by the same contemplative narrator, Bill Whitman, who works in TV advertising, each about two pages long, and each a gem of a story in itself. It is, I believe, the work of a master at the height of his powers. There are so many great lines I could quote, but for me this from the fourth section titled “Farewell” seems to get to the heart of the matter when the narrator asks: “I wonder if like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you,…” This story is indeed mysterious and profound, sometimes very funny, and each time I read it I find something new and surprising that I hadn’t somehow noticed before. The ending, though, always makes me gasp and leaves me feeling hollowed out. A work of a genius in my view.

First published in The New Yorker, February 2014, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in The Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015, and The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden, Random House 2018

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

There’s no better subject for fiction than terrible people doing terrible things. I’ve been trying and failing to find a quote from Johnson I noted down a few months ago, along the lines of, “Some of us like to read stories about people shooting at each other, and some of us really are shooting at each other.” He made no secret that the stories in Jesus’ Son are from his life, or the lives of those close to him; all you really need to know is that the central character’s nickname, Fuckhead, was also Johnson’s. This is the story of his I keep circling back to, and to be honest it’s really only the first half I’m interested in – the stuff with the rabbits always feels like it’s trying a bit too hard. But what do I know? It’s obviously a masterpiece, and I could live in those opening pages for a long time.

Originally published in The New Yorker September 1991, and available to subscribers to read here. Subscribers can also listen to Tobias Wolff read it here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Granta Books 2012. Also available to read online in Narrative Magazine)

‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

Take this as a vote for the whole of Jesus’ Son, a book of linked stories about a sleazy, damaged drug addict called Fuckhead. Johnson rips the skin off Fuckhead’s life to reveal the beauty and anguish beneath the surface. In the justly famous opening story, the protagonist hitches a ride with a family on a dark, wet night, ominously telling us: “I’d known all along exactly what was going to happen.” After several readings I’m still at a loss to pin down how Johnson succeeds in being so transcendently gritty, so brutally compassionate. It helps that he’s one of the great prose stylists, as he proves from the opening sentences to the shocking conclusion, when the narrator seems to swivel from the carnage he’s just described to look us dead in the eye: “It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

From Jesus’ Son, 1992, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ by Denis Johnson

This is from a short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, that both sits lightly on the soul and then with hindsight crushes it. Writing, the narrator explains in ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, is like “filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie.” And this neatly summarises the surface ordinariness of Johnson’s fiction, a surface that camouflages a despair so tightly spun that it takes longer than the duration of the story to get you. These stories are the same as when someone asks if you’re ok and you say yes even though you aren’t. Comprising of just five longish pieces, it’s full of questions the narrators won’t let themselves ask and people casually unsure of whether they’re alive or dead. It also contains an epitaph that is far better than Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. ‘Starlight on Idaho’ ends a with gravestone that has ‘I Should Be Dead’ scrawled across it.      
‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ follows a lonely poet—who looks like Glenn Gould—and a disillusioned academic, charting their coincidental meetings across a massive time period—a heady mix of Austerlitz and The Big Lebowski (sorry for mixing mediums). There is a bizarre theory about Elvis being swapped with his dead twin brother during the war, but really the story unearths the similarities between conspiracy theories and creativity. It’s also about the cult of celebrity and how certain icons, like Elvis, can haunt us. They have a distant and ethereal presence yet they have the ghostly power to move our minds and bodies, they might even make us throw objects across the room. Are we all poltergeists? 

From The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018

‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

Reasons that I knew I would adore Denis Johnson.

1. He named his short story collection Jesus’ Son, after a line from ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground.

2. After reading about twenty words of this story I felt the ground fall away from my feet and had to stop to take a breath.

Fuckhead is the narrator, and we are complicit in his story immediately, we’ve been sucked us into his world and dragged along with him in this nightmarish premonition of an accident on a rainy night. Life is senseless, redemption is wonderful but fleeting.

There are some people that you meet, complete strangers, and yet after only a few minutes, you bristle, and instantly feel uncomfortable around them. Sometimes, you trust them implicitly. There’s no rhyme or reason for this, other than an instinct, our primal lizard brain kicking in, sensing who the good guys are. The genuine ones.

Denis Johnson writes the truth. He is the truth. And I trust him completely. 

From ‘Jesus’ Son’, 1992, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

As with many of the stories in Jesus’ Son, this one seems so perfect that it could only have come into being by some sheer, incredible fluke. It spits on plenty of storytelling conventions, tricks you into thinking you can feel its contours, then it bursts through them, and you. Partly I think it’s the fact that Denis Johnson changes register with such alarming speed that I am always caught off guard no matter how many times I have read the story before, and that he puts such authority into his narrative voice that I will always willingly follow it. But partly it’s just some sort of magic. 

Collected in Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992, available to read in Narrative Magazine here

‘The Starlight on Idaho’ by Denis Johnson

Johnson writes shambolic characters with a sort of grubby, gleeful honesty. Here, Mark ‘Cass’ Cassandra is a recovering addict, in the early days of yet another rehab stint and writing imaginary letters to everybody to whom he is bound by blood or hurt: “I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go.”

Every time I read this story, I think that the concerns of men and women writers are often very different, with men writing men externalising their pain and distributing it among the various people (often women) in their lives, while women write women swallowing their words and internalising it all. If writing about shambles is male territory, nobody goes for it like Johnson, with Cass describing his life in recent years as a serious of disasters – broke, lost, homeless, detox, shot. Yet underneath the bravado, Cass seeks to make amends for his mistakes, not wanting to end up where his grandmother has darkly prophesied, “buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave.”

Of others’ pain, he says, “That’s what we gotta do is get down to just one story, the true person we are, and live it all the way out.” The hope in that one line will follow you. 

First published in Playboy, 2007. Collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018

‘Work’ by Denis Johnson

Tense, and time. Johnson’s collection of stories is narrated by the same protagonist throughout. Studying sentences like “But now the river was flat and slow”, I learned (continue to learn) to manage tense in a story. Speaking in the past tense, within that speaking about something that happened further in the past, or is happening in the ‘present’ of your story, in the past tense, confused yet? Perspective rears its head again, where is your narrator telling the story from, what point in time? This will set the tone. If the character is talking to us about an event that took place a year previous, the rougher edges of what looks like a harrowing experience may have smoothed out somewhat, they know what happened next, compared to something that happened to the protagonist the day before. Just knowing this while you’re writing gives a better flow, the language will naturally follow from the awareness of perspective. And on to the language, there is definitely something that defies assimilation: “the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me.” A hailstorm, such a description allowed me to see it as if for the first time. 

First published in The New Yorker, November 14, 1988 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992, Granta, 2012. Also available to read here