MORE THAN almost any other writer, Denis Johnson would have been so wonderfully amused by this gathering we’re all attending, in which we’ll speak of his passing, and it’s heartbreaking that he can’t be here. When confronted with sedately dressed people talking in a decorous manner about serious subjects, he couldn’t help seeing them as the frantic, desperate animals they are when un-clothed, tiny bits of dust in the face of the vastness of Death, the planets and stars.
In his earlier days, Denis had experienced life as an out-of- control maniac, his brain hurled backwards and forwards by drugs and alcohol, his body making its way through dangerous rooms and secret alleyways entirely invisible to the bourgeois eye. Having known the alternative, he had a deep respect and admiration for the sane mind, but at the same time he never lost his deep respect and admiration for the not-sane mind. He was a skeptic and a believer. In the end, he devoted most of his life to that very genteel activity, writing, the delicate process of selecting, arranging, and re-arranging words.
A few years before I met him at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where we were both visiting faculty, Alice Quinn, who was soon to publish my first book, suggested that I might like a first novel by her author Denis Johnson. I don’t remember what else was in the tall stack she gave me, but I certainly remember the dull green cover of the galleys of Angels, the print on the page, and the sensation of inebriated, incredulous exhilaration that seized me almost as soon as I opened the book and increased as I read along.
It’s unnerving actually to meet a writer whose work has given one great pleasure—that is, someone with whom one has already had an intimate, if entirely one-sided relationship, and although in Iowa Denis and I were theoretically on equal footing, in point of fact, I was a tremulous Denis Johnson fanatic. The author of Angels clearly had an uncanny courage, humility, and stamina, a willingness to submit himself to reality—not the codified, received, domesticated, costumed reality we rely on to get through the day, but the actual, roiling, boiling thing, the combustion between the outlandish absurdities that the planet devises and the utter mysteries of the individual psyche. It seemed to me that he was a lightning rod, equipped to sustain and absorb—at whatever cost—a lethal charge, and to conduct it onto the page as elegant, terrifying, hilarious, chastening art, as fresh and alive as it was uncompromising.
By the time one has met a few writers one realizes that writers rarely embody the qualities expressed in their work, so I wasn’t really expecting to encounter a naked prophet who would hold a knife at my throat and tell hair-raising, fall-over funny stories while the heavens opened, shedding light and grace. And I did not encounter such a person. The person I did encounter was mild, sweet-natured, and extremely elusive. I caught sight of him in the grocery store a few times, and followed him around, hoping to lasso him with helpful offers—“Hey, Denis, Hi Denis, can I carry that sack of potatoes for you, Denis?” I had the distinct impression that he had no idea who this pest was, but he could not have been more serenely agreeable, even as he slipped away through the aisles.
But soon I began to see the writing in the person. Actually, his benign equanimity suggested that he was focused on something invisible—the spark of light in everything, no matter how fearsome, ridiculous, violent, or mundane—that he was only impersonating an ordinary, neighborly earthling, while in fact his alien matter was oscillating in rapid communications with whatever his true planet was. And he hovered, safely, a little off the ground in Cindy’s sparkly sunshine. The large, imperiled, refined, recklessly playful, and deeply charitable soul that suffuses his writing was there to be seen. Like his characters, he spoke in the ravishing music of ordinary speech, and, as anyone who ever met Denis knows, in person, too, he actually was fall-down funny.
The students in Iowa were not only dazzled by Denis, they wanted to be Denis, and like subsequent students and writers, many tried to imitate his writing. But although superficial elements of any writing can be mimicked, revelation cannot be imitated, nor can the quality of experience that has been compressed by great weight into radiant essence.