When Ernest Hemingway wrote about the death of Joseph Conrad for the Transatlantic Review, in October of 1924, he didn’t miss the chance to land a literary left hook on his mentor’s behalf:
“If I knew that by grinding [T.S.] Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”
I was on assignment in Central America when I heard of Denis Johnson’s passing last month, from liver cancer, at the age of 67. And my first reaction was to wonder just which towering figures of literature might best serve for the production of a “fine dry powder” to sift over Mr. Johnson’s burial plot, if I knew such a dusting would revive him.
After consulting by phone with several colleagues it was decided that an elixir consisting of equal parts Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, and Don DeLillo would be ideal. However, due to humanitarian concerns, legal obstacles, and logistical hurdles (it turns out a sausage grinder of sufficient size isn’t easily portable, and costs over $1,300 from Amazon), I chose instead to write this essay.
Johnson’s fiction and poetry earned him most of the major prizes and fellowships there are to win, from the Guggenheim to the National Book Award. Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer, he would likely have won it the second time—for the “transcendent” novella Train Dreams—save for the small inconvenience of the committee failing to give out the award that year. But it was Johnson’s achievements as a war reporter while writing for magazines like The New Yorker that gave a world-wise cast to his voice and vision, and truly set him apart from the other great scribes of his generation.
Once at a party in his honor, after a public reading in Iowa City, Denis Johnson and I stood outside on the rickety landing of the second-story apartment I shared with a couple of half-starved poets, discussing belletristic matters over an excellent vintage of boxed merlot.
What was the hardest of the forms to write well in? I wanted to know.
He said that line-by-line it was poetry, but that “if you take it seriously, and treat your prose like poetry, nothing is harder than the novel.”
I told him I thought he had achieved that poetry-as-prose quality in his own work—by way of example citing the formidable short stories of Jesus’ Son—and Mr. Johnson humbly agreed with my assessment.
Johnson might have combined a poet’s ear with a novelist’s eye, but he was also an atypical aesthete. Unlike many of his postmodern peers he remained a restless and inveterate wanderer all his life, traveling from his quiet home in Idaho to Alaska, Africa, and Afghanistan, among the many other far-flung places he wrote about.
He also had a strange and twisted predilection for long stays in conflict zones. His habit of plunging himself directly into harm’s way greatly expanded his range as a novelist; it also resulted in the production of some of the best war correspondence written since Vietnam.
At a time when so many writers have walled themselves off in the ivory towers of academia, content to spin thin suburban fictions or campus romances, Johnson was willing to take his talents to some of the most violent destinations on the planet.
For combining linguistic chops with real-world cred his closest contemporary might be Hunter S. Thompson. Twelve years his senior, Thompson pioneered the “Gonzo” ethos that would become Johnson’s calling card. But the case could be made that Johnson ultimately out-worked his predecessor, both as battle-hardened overseas reporter and as creative writer.
“Gutters running with blood. . .”
Denis Johnson’s globetrotting began at birth, coming into the world in West Germany, in 1949. As the son of a State Department officer who worked with the CIA, Johnson spent his childhood on the move, including stints in Japan and the Philippines—the latter locale would factor heavily in his novel Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award in 2007.
Later, during his tenure at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he studied under Raymond Carver, gleaning from him a lean style, an ear for razor-keen dialogue, and an affinity for outcast characters, loveable losers in whom we see our own darker selves reflected.
His first foray to a war zone came in the early ‘80s. Already seen as a promising, up-and-coming poet and novelist, Johnson could have ridden his reputation into a comfortable teaching gig Stateside. Instead he bounced down to Nicaragua to cover the fighting between the Sandinistas and the Contras, an experience he would later parlay into his excellent third novel The Stars at Noon.
Writing in the voice of a self-destructive female journalist-cum-prostitute, who is on the run sans funds in Managua when the novel begins, Johnson captures not just the soldiers, spies, and corrupt officials, but also the habitudes of those who cover them. Here’s a snapshot of the narrator on fiesta with the foreign press corps in the capital’s InterContinental Hotel:
Each one who did not have a vagina had a beard. All had cans of film bulging in their snap-flap pockets. They all drank as if they were just getting up to leave, but they never—I didn’t blame them, believe me—got up and left unless forced.
“You have to hustle.”
“You want bang-bang in Beirut, pull the film out of your pocket, wave it around. . .
“Makes you thirsty just breathing the air.”
“Gutters running with blood. . .”
“No such luck down here.”
“The last man to get shot down here shot himself.”
“We’ll have to buy guns. We’re going to have to shoot somebody ourselves.”
We began to snort and laugh. Smoke curled out of our ears. Our claws whined against the glass tabletop. . .
Oliver Stone’s film "Salvador," which like Stars came out in 1986, explores similar thematic terrain, also depicting Central American chaos from a shiftless gringo’s point of view. Yet one could argue that Johnson’s lost and nameless heroine is the more sympathetic character—and a more tragic figure—than Stone’s protagonist (loosely based on photojournalist Richard Boyle).
Life in an InterContinental Hotel during wartime would become a running motif in Johnson’s work. He again used that setting to symbolize a remnant of civilization in the midst of hell in his reporting from Kabul, while covering the Soviet-Afghan War in the late ‘80s:
The Inter-Continental looks out on everything from a central height, one of Kabul’s most prominent structures, visible from almost any point in the city. A quiet building, half of it wrecked by shelling but the other half still hosting clients. Just now I’m the only guest at the Inter-Continental.
Some of the staff have moved into a couple of the other rooms, and we live here, my staff and I, in stealth: walking very softly in the halls, hardly ever raising our voices above a whisper, conforming ourselves to the great silence that fills the building, the silence of all the people who aren’t there.
As good as he could be in close-focus mode, detailing the strange minutia of surreal war-zone scenes, Johnson was just as sound at exploring the price of armed combat at the macro level. For a piece called “The Civil War in Hell,” about the factional fighting in Liberia sparked by aspiring dictator Robert Taylor, Johnson travels with another correspondent to interview Taylor himself. During that face-to-face the warlord proudly offers to show the reporters a video tape of him torturing the nation’s former president to death. Back at his hotel and without electricity, Johnson tunes in a battery-powered radio, and muses on the follies of human conflict:
“On their portable short-waves the journalists listen to the world news services: Everywhere on earth the people are at war, or preparing for war, or trying to extricate themselves from war—civil war, tribal war, even, in the Middle East, at long last, World War III; border disputes, factional clashes, punitive strikes, holy campaigns; and these must be photographed, catalogued, monitored, brought to light, but there isn’t space in the papers to tell about them all, not even half of them.”
Seek and Ye Shall Find
Both “Civil War” and his Afghan coverage can be found together in Johnson’s 2002 nonfiction tour-de-force Seek, which caused a reviewer for Rolling Stone to write, “Is Denis Johnson braver, more reckless, or just more foolish than most of those who pretend to the title ‘journalist’? It doesn’t matter in the end—he is willing to place his lonesome ass in the way of seriously bad and scary stuff and then bring back the tale, told better than it’s ever been told before.”
The best reporting in Seek comes last, the second of two pieces on the Liberian Civil War that bookend the collection. It’s called “The Small Boys Unit,” about a group of underage bodyguards employed by the now fully-fledged despot Charles Taylor, whom he relies on due to the boys’ savage and unwavering loyalty. At the end of the article, after having been illegally detained and held for some weeks by Taylor’s forces, Johnson escapes across the border to Nigeria. Back in the States he asks himself:
Why did I go to Liberia? What was I thinking, why did I do it, why? I don’t know. I don’t know.
"I called my editor at The New Yorker and told him I’d gotten nothing for him. I said I was keeping what was left of the magazine’s expense money and they could come after me and try and get it if they wanted. I hoped they’d try.
Denis Johnson’s passing is a great loss to American letters, and we shall be hard-pressed to find his equal anytime soon. Fortunately, however, we don’t need to grind up any latter-day Eliots for resuscitation purposes (at least not yet), because a new collection of his short stories, The Largess of the Sea Maiden, will be published in January of 2018.
Several years ago, while standing on the landing of my student’s garret in Iowa City and sharing a box of vino with him, I wine-foolishly asked Mr. Johnson for any more advice he could give on the art of writing.
“Yes,” he said, graciously and without having to think about it at all. “Don’t take a job. If you want to write you already have one. Writing well is a full-time occupation. That’s all I can tell you.”
Soon thereafter one of the underfed poets I shared the flat with came up to drive Mr. Johnson over to the Foxhead Bar, where some old friends were waiting to shoot pool with him. Before he left he took my tattered, backpack-flattened copy of Jesus’ Son, scribbled something down, and handed it to me.
Always remember, it said on the flyleaf, what your job is.