Denis Johnson wrote hallucinatory works, novels that slip into the fantastic and then veer hard back into the real with such force that the experience of reading him is the joy of that swerve. He died last week, of liver cancer at the age of 67 in his home near the northern California coast. My two favorite novels of his are his longest and his shortest, Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams. In both these works, he seemed to be chasing the epic, but he went about it in two opposing ways and reading them in tandem gives the reader the joy of that swerve, which suffuses all of his work.
Tree of Smoke is a doorstopper, which takes on the Vietnam War through the eyes of its protagonist, Skip Sands, a young CIA officer to whom Johnson introduces us in the following terms: “Once upon a time there was a war...and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American.”
The book that follows is a whipsaw filled with a broad, nearly Tolstoy-esque pastiche of characters. Memorable among them is Colonel Francis X. Sands, the uncle of Skip, whose eponymous Tree of Smoke—an omniscient system of files on every soldier, scoundrel, and spy in the country—drives the Wurlitzer of a PSYOP that fuels much of the narrative. If Sands is the mastermind behind the war, it’s the ill-fated Houston brothers who roam through Vietnam, and eventually back home, who deliver the most searing portrait not just of that conflict, but of America itself, which is what the book—despite its being set in Vietnam—is ultimately about. Johnson’s writing in these pages is big, suffused with mercilessly sharp sentences. This is juxtaposed to his plotting, which is shaggy, indulgent even, with whole threads of the story lopped off and then left tangled and unfinished in the conclusion. Tree of Smoke certainly isn’t a perfect novel, but I suspect Johnson didn’t have much time for anyone who thought art is about perfection. It is epic; an epic mess in certain ways, but this is what makes it great.
It stands in stark contrast with his other epic, or epic-in-miniature to be precise, which is Train Dreams. Tightly plotted with a narrow cast of characters and hemmed together with clean, quiet prose, Johnson veers widely in form between the two books. Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier’s life in the Idaho woods, the loss of his wife, and the improbable fate of his daughter, who was raised by wolves and turned into a wolf-girl. The role of the hallucinatory also takes different shapes between these two works. Whereas in Tree of Smoke, Johnson relied upon the innate surrealism of war to launch his narrative into the realm of the spectacular, in Train Dreams, he allows the solitude of the Idaho wilderness to serve this purpose. Take for example the following:
“Frost had built on the dead grass, and it skirled beneath his feet. If not for this sound he’d have thought himself struck deaf, owing to the magnitude of the surrounding silence. All the night’s noises had stopped. The whole valley seemed to reflect his shock. He heard only his footsteps and the wolf-girl’s panting complaint.”
Both Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and further cemented Johnson within the pantheon of great American writers. However, this was a mantle he never seemed to entirely embrace. For much of his life, he eschewed the limelight and lived in relative seclusion in the American West, including a stint in the same Idaho woods where much of Train Dreams was set. Johnson was a literary prodigy, publishing his first book at 19, but his 20s proved unproductive as he lived on the streets for a time and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, a theme that features prominently in much of his work.
But trying to understand a writer through his life is akin to an ungrateful child inquiring as to what toy store his presents came from. The receipt of the gift should be enough. And in the course of Johnson’s life, he bestowed on us more than most, also leaving behind masterworks such as Angels and Jesus’ Son, with a final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, scheduled for this coming January.
Johnson was also a poet and a playwright, but once, when asked about why he liked the novel, the form for which he is arguably best known, he said: “It's like the ocean. You can just build a boat and take off.” And so he will be missed, particularly as he would have much to say as we navigate these times that are as hallucinatory as anything conceived in his pages, veering us between the real and surreal with equal force, as though he were the author of it all.