Denis Johnson: A Eulogy

By Joshua Hotir 07/07/17

I can feel you here, in this room, in our heartbeats. I can feel so many people out there right now, only a few weeks since your spirit has been released to fly wherever they go, rereading these miraculous stories.

Image: 
The late author Denis Johnson.
via Cindy Lee Johnson

A pitifully worn book of short stories lay on my little kitchen table when I lifted myself, sleepless from my bed…the Rotweiler, Madonna, I’d bought six years before from a 300 pound cocaine dealer nipped at my legs on way to the bathroom. She was always there, ready to take me for her morning walk. As we made it down the stairs, Madonna pranced by my side, thrilled to be heading to the run at dawn, when the dog run first opened, instead of at 9:30 as usual.

I had such a dark knot in my gut. I hadn’t shit in 28 hours straight. In my mind, it was summer then. It was sunny that day, I know for sure. I can clearly see it, even though I know factually it was February 21st 2001. 

The collection of short stories by Denis Johnson that lay on my table was, as always, waiting for me to surrender, even though I didn’t know what to. I could feel it there as I walked across Avenue B, like a slight magnetic pull, like we can sense someone watching from a distance. Sometimes, four winters before when I was homeless, I could dip into a random page and an incredible vision would appear before me that might lift me for half an hour out of my relentless wishes to end it all. I couldn’t guess how many times I’d read it. At least 50. The title of the book never once became dull: Jesus’ Son. It comes from an infamous Lou Reed lyric from his song Heroin: “When I’m rushing on my run and feel just like Jesus’ son.”

The narrator in the collection has a both striking and translucent view of the world as seen through his addiction to that mysterious drug derived from the seeds of beautiful Poppies that paint the fields of Indonesia orange, and whatever pills he can get his hands on when he can’t find his drug of choice. I hadn’t even yet learned the joys of being high on cheap pot around the clock for days and weeks and months when a step-cousin read me the first story to the collection: “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” Instantly, I knew I had to buy the book. I didn’t even have anything in common with him, then or when I lived in my car and smoked pot, only because people like you and me can convince ourselves that pot and acid and beer can’t kill you like a junkie with the bloody needle stuck in his arm, bouncing slightly to their faltering heart. But it’s not true. Pot left me homeless. Pot chose and destroyed every relationship. Pot mixed with acid convinced me one summer that I needed to spend $55,000 dollars on a bulletproof 400 horse power gray BMW; $48,000 on a stereo with seven foot Magnaplanar panel speakers that, I kid you not, could, every dawn, make Diana Ross materialize in my apartment singing Touch me in the Morning. I loved pot like babies love their mother’s breasts. I smoked it in the shower through a hole I’d cut in my shower curtain that I was certain would one day find its way into a museum.

The day before I walked to the dog run with a dark hole stomach and Madonna by my side, my boss had yelled at me: “You are out of our program if you don’t change everything about how you are teaching our violence prevention program in the public schools.” 

He had clear gray eyes. When I first me him, I told his beautiful Eurasian assistant that I imagined he’d led people into battle in the Cambodian Killing fields, and she just said “Close. Vietnam.”

At one point, he took a break from yelling at me, then looked at me kindly as maybe a father might. I hadn’t been high for 18 months at that point, or drunk for that long too, but I knew then he was capable of seeing past that frail façade to the pitiful, needy child I was deep inside. I was sure this was it; Earl was going to extend his hand and say “It’s been a good four years, and you can pick up your last check in two weeks.” 

However he didn’t say that, maybe he didn’t even think that. I know now though that God couldn’t have sent a better messenger on a better day with better tone, like he or she or it has done for all of us. Because he then added, “Josh I don’t understand what’s going on in your classrooms. You get either excellent reviews or a long 5 page critical letter once a year. I wish someone could just explain it to me.” 

I swallowed, looking him in the eyes, not knowing what could possibly come after his question that seemed directed more to the room than me. It was the longest job I’d ever had.

He continued, now on a roll, “One thing I do know, whatever is going on with you in these classrooms is happening in your entire life. And you better find out what that is. Please, the next month in your only school, if the head teacher asks you to do something, just try to say, yes.”

Once inside the dog run, I was elated to see Frank and my Iranian writer friend in one corner. Our dogs ran around us and the trees in wide ellipses as I approached. With our cigarettes glowing and leashes hanging around our necks, I told the two of them about my boss and how he’d yelled at me the day before, how my mind no longer worked, but had gone back to repeating the same thought about how much I hated myself more than anyone else in the world. Both of them seemed to understand the experience, and agreed, without explaining, that it would pass.

Frank walked across the run to clean up his dog’s dump and my friend whispered to me, in her beautiful middle-eastern accent, “You really want to know why you’re losing your job and are terrified?”

She said it like only an enchanting Iranian woman who’d visited all the most important countries of the world, can.

Yes, please,” I whispered back.

“You’re losing it because you’re an alcoholic and an addict and a dozen other things. You’re addicted to your own thoughts all day long. I’ve seen you.”

“You’re wrong, I haven’t even gotten drunk, drunk in 18 months or gotten high…or…,” I protested. “I know about everything you say. I have a great shrink……”

“You are afraid like an alcoholic,” she insisted, “You are resistant to hearing anything about yourself like an alcoholic.” For a moment I thought she was talking to me like lovers in a fight. 

We stared at each other as her responses landed within the folds of my mind. It was exactly what my boss had insisted the day before, as if they had conferred with each other. I heard his voice then saying, “Josh, if someone asks you to do something. Just try to say yes.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

She looked elated.

“You should come with me to the recovery meeting on Sixth street and Avenue C next Monday at noon. It used to be a church. You can’t miss it. Don’t say a single word, though. You have to promise. I will meet you outside the door.”

“Yes.”

“Can you make it to Monday? It’s three days away. Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be there. Definitely.”

She too had read Jesus’ Son, more than once. We’d once talked about the book at a bar while our dogs lay at our feet. The final story of Denis Johnson’s collection, “Beverly Home," when Fuckhead, the narrator, just barely begins to get clean and his life slightly turns around, rushed me as I stood there looking at her, as if the story had unfolded before me and invited me to enter. All the high, drunken moments of my life began circling my eyes like I was a cartoon character: the moment I yelled at my uncle from the pulpit at my grandfather’s funeral while terribly hungover, the mornings at college my roommates had to tell me what I’d done the night before. The day I woke, having lost all my college friends in the midst of a sleepless manic episode that had lasted an entire week, seven days. Seven days without sleep. For the first time I saw all of those moments as linked to each other whereas the instant before they’d all been separate.

Maybe, when you hear the name “Beverly,” you think of Beverly Hills people wandering the streets with their heads shot off by money.

As for me, I don’t remember ever knowing anybody named Beverly. But it’s a beautiful, a sonorous name. I worked in an O-shaped, turquoise-blue hospital for the aged bearing it.

“And sometimes a dust storm would stand off in the desert, towering so high it was like another city—a terrifying new era approaching, blurring our dreams.”

(Jesus’ Son, "Beverly Home")

Who else in American literature ever had the guts to use a bold font so boldly, or quote a line from Revelations as if they’d actually seen the city of Jerusalem descending, exactly as they say, like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I’d had, many times before, the feeling I was inside the first 10 drug-strewn stories of Jesus’ Son: when my car ran out of gas on the highway miles from anywhere in the middle of a heroic acid trip, when I noticed my dog could get quite loopy off my secondary smoke and fall on the tiled kitchen floor, when the few times a woman appeared at my side naked in the morning and all I could think about was how I could best discover her name before she realized I didn’t know it. But those innocent moments of identification were nothing like the feeling of entering the pivotal last story for the very first time. It was that following Monday right at noon when I stepped into a stained glass room filled with light, and shadows, tattoos and wild laughter for my first meeting ever. 

At one point the speaker, with elegant tattoos down both arms, wept as she talked about how lonely she’d been as child until she’d found drinking at the age of twelve. I hadn’t seen a woman weep like that ever. I’d seen my mother cry only twice.

I still tell people, 16 years later, about that moment in the dog run when I was invited into a different realm than all the moments before, and the wild applause in that room when I announced it was my first meeting. Whenever I speak about that experience, I tell them how the last story of my favorite book of heroin-induced short stories immediately sprang to mind on both occasions, giving me permission to walk in. 

I met you twice, Denis, at two separate readings but never said what I’d wanted to. It was too rushed, too many people getting their books signed. I wanted you to remember me forever at one of those times. I walked up to you before your play reading at the KGB bar and stupidly said, “I hadn’t realized how short you were up close.”

You looked at me blankly, and replied, “Do I know you?” 

Instantly I knew I had lost every chance to ever become your friend. It had been so different when I said whatever flew through my mind, meeting Junot Diaz.

Denis, I can feel you here, in this room, in our heartbeats. I can feel so many people out there right now, only a few weeks since your spirit has been released to fly wherever they go, rereading these miraculous stories. I picture them with sweaty, uneasy hands, as if losing their virginity one last time. I can feel them wanting to express the unspeakable as they moan. I can feel the shared disbelief that your final book of short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, will be published posthumously in January, only months away. The 25 year long awaited sequel to Jesus’ Son. 

I know a trembling feeling will take me over as well as I pick up my copy of your last book. I can already feel the tingling. I envision its thick font you use, which somehow can paint hallucinogenic pictures across the air in a way that would never work in Times New Roman.

I sometimes wish I had met you on a plane, accidentally placed next to each other, and had an entire flight to tell you everything about my life, not caring if you wanted to hear it or not. 

Because after that morning I attended my first meeting in the old church--I have fallen into true love a half-dozen times, fallen into clinical depressions darker than hell, placed myself in a psych-ward in upstate New York for suicidal ideation, which wouldn’t let me return to the free world for days on end, nine of them total, even when I begged the Gods and Goddesses for the guards to release me for just an hour, so I could finally fly over the edge of the Williamsburg bridge in peace.

I have experienced brilliant manic episodes, too, like I was the second coming. I have gotten married to a woman surrounded in Gospel music whom I met in the choir we both sang in. I have seen our infant’s minuscule eyes adjust to the bright lights in that hospital room on the 10th floor. 

Because since that morning 16 years ago, when I sat in a steel folding chair surrounded by 50 other people and your book’s last story spread through my body, I never once got high or drunk again. I was never once ever truly alone again. You are a part of all that, from the first time I announced my name and who I was. I heard you had something like 30 years of recovery when you died. I could never thank you and all those people like us enough.

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