All These Weirdos: For Denis Johnson
by Ed Simon
Sinners always make the greatest Christian writers. Last month we lost one of the greatest of modern Christian writers, who was also a self-declared “criminal hedonist.” Denis Johnson was a sublime poet of the addict, chronicler of the junkie, charter of the drunk, and not in spite of that role but precisely because of it he stands alongside Marilyn Robinson as one of the most important Christian writers of the last few decades. Johnson will be remembered for his novels like Angels (1983) or Tree of Smoke (2007), and for his poetry, but most likely it’s his 1992 minimalist masterpiece Jesus’ Son that will prove to be his most enduring.
Jesus’ Son may have had as its central character a reprobate, alcoholic, drug addicted hustler known only as “Fuckhead,” and it’s title may have originally come from the Velvet Underground classic “Heroin,” but the central insight of the collection is that “Jesus’ son” (and daughter) refers to all of us. Perhaps because Johnson got clean in 1978 he avoids some of the junkie romanticism and euphoric recall that one sees in vastly more immature writers like Charles Bukowski and even William S. Burroughs, but the tale of brief grace that is told in Jesus’ Son is so consummately beautiful, and threaded with such a sense of the numinous that it reads as if written by Gerard Manley Hopkins with a hangover.
These moments of grace for Fuckhead are few and far between, and often hard to discern (as indeed grace must be for any of us). Saving some baby rabbits that he later accidentally crushes to death, seeing the grey shadows of a drive-in movie theater blanketed in snow during a surprise Iowa September squall, cradling a new-born infant to his chest after surviving a car-crash that has killed the family who picked him up while hitch-hiking, spying on a Mennonite husband washing his young wife’s feet in penitentiary supplication. Even in the throes of his addiction there could paradoxically be a life-saving grace in the very things which are killing him, such as in the form of a naïve and benevolent bartender, a young woman who “poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass… You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom.”
It’s an odd, strange, hallucinatory book, supposedly modeled purposefully on the Stations of the Cross, and moving between Iowa, Chicago, Seattle, and Phoenix. The narrator is never named; sometimes he references a wife whom he leaves, sometimes a girlfriend who later accidentally commits suicide by OD. Characters flit-in-and-out, with the narrator sometimes having a sense of who they are, and sometimes letting them (and the narrative) merge and fluctuate, like a story recounted by somebody who has sat at the bar for a few hours by the time it’s already Noon. As New York Times reviewer James McManus observed shortly after the book’s release, Jesus’ Son is “governed by addiction, malevolence, faith and uncertainty… a place where attempts at salvation remain radically provisional, and where a teetering narrative architecture uncannily expresses both Christlike and pathological traits of mind.”
A faith predicated on God’s incarnation within a fallible physical body would demand no less than that its greatest art be made by sinners such as Johnson. Christianity, by necessity, must always exist between the material and the holy, the sacred and the profane, sin and salvation. The gap between the highest calling of Christ’s teachings and the actual fallen behavior of real humans can be vast or infinitesimally small, but by definition that distance must always actually be infinite. The name for the substance that fills that distance is “grace.” Fuckhead says of a friend, “He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Sinners, by dint of already knowing they’re in the gutter, can sometimes understand better than most that blessed truth that we’re all a mess. As Johnson once explained to a reporter from New York Magazine, “What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?”
In one of the many true passages from Jesus’ Son, Fuckhead describes his local dive the Vine, by saying that those at the bar “gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here.” Yet the Vine is a purgatory without penitence, for “nothing could be healed.” In an interview Johnson explained that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung had once said that, “inside of every alcoholic there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.” Elsewhere Jung had described addictions as being a physical solution to a spiritual problem, and in this sense the thinly veiled roman a clef junkie novel has the potential to be one the most enduringly religious classics written in the twentieth-century.
In a controversial 2012 New York Times piece entitled “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” writer Paul Ellie claimed, “if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Much of his argument and his account makes sense: that Christian literature has become increasingly niche, and that today’s serious writers of fiction don’t explore the same themes which only a generation ago motivated authors as diverse as Flannery O’Connor or John Updike (Ellie does mention Johnson). Certainly there is little succor to be found in the paperbacks specifically marketed to a Christian audience – schmaltzy, didactic works that deserve to be shelved next to Milton and Dante as much as Creed would have deserved to play at CBGB. Ellie bemoans that “in short, [this] is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover.”
But that’s the deep sublimity which is precisely suggested by Johnson’s fiction, that if Christian belief (and thus Christ) figures anywhere it’s often between a hangover and death. There are no shortages of saccharine, preachy drugologues, accounts of once being lost, but now found. But what distinguishes Johnson from so much of that which is marketed as “Christian” is that grace – as it must be – is so nearly always invisible. There is no road to Damascus for Fuckhead, but in what must count as one of the happiest endings in modern literature, contingent and uncertain though it may be, Johnson’s narrator finds a place for “All these weirdos” where he is “getting a little better every day right in the midst of them.” For Johnson suspects, or knows, that it is such small grace, which may be barely perceptible, on which everything must depend.
Photograph by cgc76.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.