What follows is a long goodbye to a man I never met. ‘I want to write about Denis Johnson,’ I said to my publicist, and she replied, ‘The world and his wife will want to write about him.’ Okay, then. Let the world and his wife write about him and I will, too.
When I was a teenager I went to America to travel across it on a Greyhound. I wrote, constantly, read bits out loud to my companions, who I picked up along the way. It culminated in me arriving in New York, freshly eighteen, finally rid of the thin man who had had enough of me in Philadelphia, and ready to fuck some other person in a hostel bed. I remember many moments of that trip because it was the first time I really saw how big the world was and could envision myself in its enormity. But mainly I remember sitting on a patch of dead grass, the top of my head burning, reading Jesus’ Son and crying. I’d found it by chance in the Strand. I’d never heard of Denis Johnson. I’d been carrying around a few books, the two I remember being a collection of Hemingway’s early stories and something called The Anatomy of Disgust. Both good books. But I honestly could have set the rest of the bookshop on fire as soon as I had read five pages of Denis Johnson.
Contained within the pages of Jesus’ Son are the most desperate works of poetry I have ever had the good fortune to come across. Johnson chronicles ugliness, betrayal, addiction and suicide while still enveloping the reader in the true goodness of the world. It is full of stark revelations, ridiculous in its constant pummelling of tragedy and so sweet – I had to put the book down and sit on it to stop myself from reading the whole thing in one sitting. Since learning of Johnson’s death I have paced around my flat reading the book out loud to myself. It works to say it, to hear the narrator, Fuckhead’s, voice coming out through your mouth, reading it out loud means to pause and to take a drink and to look away and to give yourself chance to draw a breath before you say the next alarming thing.
Of course, there are many writers who have written about being deadbeats, many who have written about alcoholism, violence. I had read a number of them by the time I was eighteen. But in Jesus’ Son is a song, a glorious clear hymn, full of the notes of bad decisions, of rotten fucking luck, of causing real and lasting damage to yourself and to the people around you. A song of humanity in all of its dreadful being-in-the-world. There is a frightening clear-headedness to the work, a beauty in the faithfulness with which Johnson as Fuckhead relates to us each moment, clearly, sharply – as self-aware as a prophet and with the unrelenting pleasure of someone who has surrendered to horror. Sweet – yes, and pure, and sad. Only faint echoes of regret for moments that, nevertheless, could not have unfolded any differently. He dispassionately engages in acts of violence and then, before we have had a chance to understand, he remembers some beautiful thing he has seen – often blossom, often snow. And it seems as if there is no difference. One is no more worthy of our attention than the other. Ultimately, each story, paragraph, sentence, will end and a new one will begin and we must be prepared for it. And I was – am – prepared. I am, in fact, desperate. Jesus’ Son speaks to me continuously, from page to page, and it says: ‘We have fucked up. We will die. Aren’t we lucky?’ The world keeps turning. Punches are thrown. Blossom falls. We are so lucky.
It is almost painful for me not to quote from the book. There are a hundred ways that Johnson put his words together that I read once and remembered forever. It would be wrong of me to remove these lines from their place on the page, simply to show them off to you. Like taking a shell from the sea. Yes, it’s beautiful, but wasn’t it more beautiful there? It feels like an accident, the way the sentences arrange themselves, just so. Like glimpses of something seen through the window of a moving train – an image, incidentally, Johnson returns to. He understands the transitory more than anybody. Einmal ist keinmal.
I relent – I will quote the last line of the book. The moment when Fuckhead looks out from the pages and addresses the reader, drawing the closing curtain and in doing so implicating us in everything that came before.
‘I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.’
But there is. We are there. It is in Jesus’ Son. In reading it we pray together – knowing that the world is full of monsters, and forgiving ourselves for being among them.
Eli Goldstone is the author of Strange Heart Beating, which you can order now.