From the Mundane to the Mystical: On the Work of Denis Johnson by Adam Fleming Petty

If you will allow the indulgence, I want to begin this essay on the fiction of Denis Johnson by considering the fiction of Marilynne Robinson. Specifically, Housekeeping, her first novel, and my personal favorite of hers. Housekeeping takes place in midcentury Idaho, where Robinson herself grew up, and tells the story of Ruth Foster, a young girl raised by a revolving cast of grandmothers and aunts. Ruth’s grandfather died before years before she was born. An employee of the railroad, he was returning from business when disaster befell him. “The train,” Robinson writes, “had pulled more than more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.” The bridge, and the lake it spans, occupies a central place in Ruth’s perception of the world, drawing and repelling her at once.

Idaho plays a significant role in Johnson’s work too, though as a destination rather than an origin. Johnson lived a peripatetic life for decades. His father worked for the State Department, and he spent much of his childhood abroad, from Germany to Japan to the Philippines. In his youth, he studied at several different universities; led by his struggles with addiction, he veered far off the well-trod educational path and was drawn to the forgotten corners of the United States. Those experiences formed the basis for ­Jesus’ Son, the book of stories that remains his most well-known work. Later in life, having achieved a measure of stability, Johnson lived in rural Idaho with his wife and children. He paid tribute to the state of Idaho with a novella entitled Train Dreams.

Train Dreams follows the life of a man named Robert Grainier. Born in the last years of the 19th century, Grainier finds work in the post–World War I era as a railroad laborer, helping build the bridges that span the glacial lakes of Idaho. Following the loss of his wife and young daughter in a fire, Grainier spends the rest of his life as, essentially, a hermit, building a cabin, raising modest livestock, and making the occasional foray into town.

Train Dreams and Housekeeping exist in the same world: the “Idaho literary universe,” if you will. The timelines of the two works sync up in such a way as to suggest that the railway bridge Ruth Foster’s grandfather plunged from is the same one that Robert Grainier constructed.

Fanciful? The musings of an overactive imagination? Guilty as charged. But beyond the temporal and geographical coincidences, there is a genuine resonance between these two works, and between Johnson and Robinson as a whole. Put it this way: after Robinson left Idaho behind, Johnson came along to pick up the mantle of the lonesome place.

Housekeeping is a deeply spiritual work, and its spirituality is informed by the natural world. Ruth spends hours walking through the woods and mountains of Idaho, communing with nature. By the time Robinson decamped for Iowa, setting Gilead and her subsequent novels there, her sense of spirituality became more, well, orthodox. Gilead is more religious than spiritual, informed by Reverend John Ames’s lifelong immersion in scripture and theology. It is also more historical. The sweep of American history, from abolition to the civil rights movement, billows through the deceptively quiet streets of the small-town Iowa. Fingerbone, the Idaho town where Housekeeping takes place, feels so distant from such grand narratives that it may as well take place on another planet.

It is that planet that Denis Johnson explores. Long before he wrote Train Dreams, Johnson wrote works that pursued spiritual knowledge and experience in similarly out-of-the-way locales. ­Angels, his first novel—which, like Housekeeping, came out in the early 1980s—tracks a man and a woman across the United States, from bus stations to fleabag motels, drinking cheap alcohol and popping pills all the while. The prevalence of drug use in Johnson’s work is a marked difference from Robinson, but he isn’t interested in degradation for its own sake. Often, drugs allow his characters to perceive the spiritual nature of the American landscape, like lemon juice revealing invisible ink.

One of the most justifiably famous instances of this technique occurs in “Emergency,” a story in Jesus’ Son. The narrator and his companion are driving across some unremarkable landscape in the Midwest when the skies grant him a vision:

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.

That swerve, from the mundane to the mystical, is a hallmark of Johnson. Even though the narrator learns that the angels are not, in fact, actual angels, but rather the projected images of a drive-in movie theater, the sense remains of the world opening up and revealing itself to those who give it the right attention.

Another example of such a spiritually-charged landscape, perhaps a counterintuitive one, occurs in The Name of the World. This short novel follows Mike Reed, a wayward academic reeling from the death of his wife and child in a car accident. (Many of Johnson’s best-known books—Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams—are rather short, which could lead one to think that his talents are best suited to the short story and the novella, like, say, Lorrie Moore. But his longer works exude a strange power too, especially Tree of Smoke, his gargantuan, moving novel about the Vietnam War. His poetry’s good, too. His talent knew no bounds.) Reed meets a student at the college, a young woman studying art, and during one of those destined drives through the American night, she takes him to a meeting of Rhineland Anabaptists.

As the hymn swayed around me like wheat in a field I found myself counting the house. Fourteen rows, about a dozen folks on each side, of the aisle: nearly three hundred people, all singing beautifully. I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space. I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God.

The faces on a drive-in movie are angels, but believers singing their praises move the narrator to unbelief? What’s happening out there in America? More accurately, Mike Reed’s confession is one of grief more than unbelief, as encountering the Anabaptists allows him to experience the full weight of the loss of his family, a loss whose full extent he hasn’t quite let himself feel. As confessions go, it bears a strong resemblance to Christ’s in the garden of Gethsemane, the moment when even God doubted his own divinity.

It’s also a moment that highlights Johnson’s own unorthodox, idiosyncratic approach to matters of the divine. He called himself a Christian while aware that his definition of the term may not be shared by others. “I’m sure you could find any number of Christians who could assure me that I’m going to hell,” he once told a journalist. “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?” He took spiritual nourishment wherever he found it, including A Course in Miracles, the self-help book adored by, among others, former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.

Turning back to Idaho, one of the strangest, most unsettling encounters with the American landscape occurs in Train Dreams. Whereas these other moments involve narrators glimpsing beyond the mundane toward the transcendent, this one finds the protagonist receiving knowledge without looking for it, and perhaps unable to endure it.

As mentioned, Robert Grainier has lost his wife and baby daughter in a fire. Returning from a job, he finds his cabin in ashes, burned to the ground. He looks for signs of his family and finds none. He builds a cabin in the same spot and lives alone. Then he hears of a rumor circulating among the locals. A wolf-girl is running in the hills, a human child living with wolves. The Kootenai, the native people indigenous to the region, tell him about this wolf-girl. Grainer takes it as myth, nothing more. But one night, following the howling of a wolf pack, the wolf-girl appears before his cabin. She is real. Her leg is injured, and he takes her inside to bandage the wound. The knowledge of her identity overwhelms Grainier.

The child’s eyes sparked greenly in the lamplight like those of any wolf. Her face was that of a wolf, but hairless.
     “Kate?” he said. “Is it you?” But it was.
     Nothing about her told him that. He simply knew it. This was his daughter.

His daughter, the one he believed dead, yet lives. But she is alive in the way an animal is alive, unreachable to him. The next morning, her wound healed, the wolf-girl leaves out the window to return to her pack, and Grainier never sees her again.

The American landscape, Johnson seems to say, holds messages: visions of angels, knowledge about God. But this moment underscores the fact that the land we call Idaho is far older than the United States. The peoples who lived in this landscape long before European colonizers got here, peoples such as the Kootenai, also had a spiritual relationship with it. They received those messages too, and perhaps they understood them better than Grainier. But still, in the fallen world, in the American landscape that Johnson describes, messages reach us if we learn to hear them. The land may have been colonized, but not tamed. It is still wild, divinely so, and that wildness can still be found in out-of-the-way places. 

Adam Fleming Petty is a writer and stay-at-home dad. His novella Followers was published by Etchings Press in 2016. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.

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