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Denis Johnson Saw What America Was Becoming

The writer focused his talent on illuminating those the country left behind.

Courtesy of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux

The easy line about Denis Johnson is that he was a writer on the fringe, who wrote about people on the fringe. It’s not totally undescriptive. But there’s something reflexive and diminishing about it—as though because he wrote about drunks and poor people that he was somehow peripheral. Great, maybe, but with a narrow field of vision.

I started thinking about this, oddly, just a few days before Johnson died last Wednesday. I spent part of the last few weeks driving through Northern Idaho, where Johnson had a house, and I revisited some of the books because I had them in the truck. And it was surreal how well they described our current world, and how much more impressive they seemed now than they had even when I first read them. Angels, his first novel, is one of the great pictures of American displacement, because it’s one of the only books by a major postwar writer to understand what road life is actually like for almost everyone who endures it. Johnson’s road life was days of washing the kids’ faces in slimy truckstop restrooms, enduring cold, hours-long waits hoping to get onto oversold Greyhounds where everyone smells like engine degreaser and chicken fingers, indeterminate periods of untrustworthy stability of trying to put down roots before moving on because there’s an aunt with a spare room in Tallahassee, or because you’ve heard vaguely that western Colorado is booming. If your own life is relatively comfortable, stable, it’s easy to forget that it’s people who don’t experience life this way who are the outliers.

The Greyhound ride that opens Angels—a ride toward nowhere in particular that ends up in Pittsburgh—can seem, on the surface, like just an update of old-school American hobo stories. But now, I tend to think of it the whole book as prophetic. It’s a picture of what America has become: a place where only a lucky and shrinking few are possessed of much that can be counted on, a place where talking about meaning or belonging seems mostly like a setup for a joke, a place where any salve—drugs, sex, money, violence, or a new town—is as good as another. Johnson saw, rightly, and long before any other male writer of his stature had the vision to see, that the people who populated his world weren’t fringe at all—that every day they were growing closer to being something like the American main.

You can see how personally Johnson took this unravelling, how much pain it caused him. It’s what makes the books feel so prophetic now. Train Dreams, a novella set entirely at the narrow tip of Idaho, opens with the main character participating in the attempted murder of a Chinese–born rail worker. It’s a strange scene, and some critics called it disjointed and implausible. But it’s hard to think anyone would say this now—when just two days after Johnson died, a white supremacist has slashed the throats of two innocents on the Portland MAX train. Tree of Smoke, his giant novel about Vietnam, is animated by the figure of a magnetic, brutal, rule-breaking Irish-Catholic intelligence officer who loses himself in a paranoid and hate-filled obsession with victory in an unwinnable fight. I found the character heavy-handed when I first read the book, and I doubted that such a lunatic figure could really survive to become an object of reverence, even in the military. But the similarities between this figure and the paranoid worldviews and sadistic actions of our current policymakers are uncanny. Johnson understood that the sickness was closer at hand than many of us were ready to suspect back then.

It’s not as though Johnson didn’t like life on the so-called margins. In Bonner’s Ferry in Northern Idaho he lived, in a literal sense, at the farthest frontier you can find in the lower 48. In Jesus’ Son—the story collection by which most readers come to know him—he seems to revel in forcing the reader to ask how much of the druggy insanity they see is “real,” and how much of it Johnson himself personally acted out. He liked to stretch the boundaries of his readers’ credulity, to make them wonder how much they could trust. He had a trick of adopting a trauma-based identity and using it as a lens into the world. Johnson spent his life looking at the hopelessness, unemployment, alienation, and addiction bred of a society built on inequality and without any sense of the shared spiritual meaning. At his best, he expanded the druggy-outlaw lens into a picture of the world at large, a picture built of a generosity of interest in people that almost none of his contemporaries could reach. His compassion and attentiveness stand as a moral challenge to a country that increasingly feels unsavable.

You can sense, in a way, that Johnson was resigned to certain facts of the world. He didn’t give many interviews, and his nonfiction—even the really good stuff—shows that he was closer to a natural poet than a natural journalist: he existed at a remove from the world. Train Dreams, my favorite by far of his books, is all about this sort of withdrawal, and reads like an imagined alternate autobiography. It’s also an almost perfect linguistic gem, a useful economic and social history of the Northwest after the close of the Indian Wars, and a metaphor of male loneliness as the lost hopes of our postwar society. It closes with this summation of the life of the book’s only real character, Robert Grainier:

Grainier himself lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s. In his time he’d traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he’d never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana. He’d had one lover—his wife, Gladys—owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once on an aircraft. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him.

I was fully conscious of how sad Johnson wanted this paragraph to read when I first encountered it, and I still find it heartbreaking and surprising. I grew up in proximity to a great number of people who reminded me at least vaguely of Robert Grainier. They didn’t seem fringe, they seemed omnipresent. Some of them had been crushed by societal forces, some were lonely for their own reasons, some probably only seemed lonely and were perfectly fine. For the most part I couldn’t say, because thinking too much about them made me sad. Johnson looked very hard at these people and made them shine.