How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.

            “Today.”

            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.

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