Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Denis Johnson

Anna Wood | 26th May 2017

We’re very sorry to hear of the passing of Denis Johnson, award-winning author of such treasures as the novella Train Dreams, beloved of us here at CBTR HQ. Anna Wood pays tribute.

That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?

Life as it is generally described to us (and by us) is not necessarily anything like the life we are experiencing. So what is? Denis Johnson’s stories are, I think. They seem so simple, often almost like anecdotes, but (as my friend put it) that’s because Denis Johnson told stories so well you imagined you could do it too. There are flashes (often very undramatic flashes, you barely notice them) of inexplicable miracles and there are barely glimpsed horrors, confusion and loneliness all mixed in and overlapping with transcendence and joy. His stories are funny too, and they frequently pull you up in a weepy moment of delight and relief as a long-unknown part of you is recognised, by a wonderful wonderful writer. And sometimes a sentence will trundle by, under your eye, then you’ll think – Hang on, that might be a perfect sentence. And you read it again, and it is.

The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts.

Johnson’s 1992 collection of stories, Jesus’ Son, presents episodes in a young man’s life. He is only ever known to us as Fuckhead, although of course he is known to us in a gazillion other ways too because we hear his voice and see the things he sees, listen to his dreams and memories which sometimes seem like the same thing.

The day was ending in a fiery and glorious way. The ships on the Sound looked like paper silhouettes being sucked up into the sun. I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.

These stories are as vast and magnificent as anything you’ll read. (They’re as vast and magnificent as his novella, Train Dreams.) They are so softly wrought, it’s impossible to work out how they stay aloft. They offer nowhere to hide, for you or Johnson. Maybe they’re short because they’re powerful (yes, like liquor, which he writes about a lot). It also means you can read them over and over again. I love them. And they have a way of hitting you hard and very gently, with the sneaky magic and sweet disappointments of your life:

Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.

Denis Johnson, 1 July 1949 – 24 May 2017


Excerpts from ‘Emergency’, ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ and ‘Happy Hour’, all in ‘Jesus’ Son’, and ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’, available to read here via The New Yorker online.