Denis Johnson’s first and only book of stories, Jesus’ Son, was a classic the moment it appeared in 1992–this was immediately clear to anyone who read it. But a classic of what? This was less clear. In subject matter, extreme brevity and partly in tone–the stories read as if they’d been scraped from the insides of an already empty man–it continued the hard-boiled minimalism of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. But the book was also about hitchhikers, misfits and especially drug addicts–its title came from the Velvet Underground’s ode to heroin–and this put it in a different tradition, less of Carver’s suburban miniatures of desperation than of the American hopped-up song of the open road.
You couldn’t help asking this genealogical question–was Johnson writing about the way history crushes people or about how people escape?–because the book itself refused to say. All the characters were lost, unreliable, wandering nowhere. The narrator occasionally wrote pure hallucinatory poetry, but more often he was laconic to the point of evasion. Here he was driving down a road from a farm where his friend had just been shot: “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.” Here he was with his friend Wayne, visiting a woman Wayne knew on some deserted stretch of road: “I don’t know what they said to one another. She walked down the steps, and Wayne followed…. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here.” Everyone in the book had been stranded by some such storm, but the more general storm remained obscure.
Johnson’s novels were far more diffuse than Jesus’ Son and allowed the reader some time to think, though they, too, described people in the wake of some catastrophe that had left them hollowed out. Angels (1983), his first novel, begins with Jamie Mays boarding a Greyhound bus to escape her abusive husband; on the bus she meets Bill Houston, a charming drifter, also on the run. They are the angels of the title, and on that bus they get drunk. Johnson’s second novel, Fiskadoro (1985), is set on the Florida coast in the aftermath of a cold war nuclear exchange; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991) is about a youngish salesman who, having attempted suicide, moves to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to sort out his life (and, seeing the wild sexual profusion of the place, immediately regrets it). For all their troubles, Johnson’s characters are oddly cheerful; they live on slimmer margins than many people, and when they slip up they often land in jail–but they seem to like it in jail. Their response to vicious violence is not so much grievance as surprise–“You shot me!” a man says to his wife, after she shoots him. They are drug addicts and alcoholics and depressives, but only because they want to be; Johnson’s world of losers is a democratic one, in which controlled substances are a form of transcendence; for many of the characters, the drugs are the only chance at transcendence they’re going to get.
Taken together, these books, set in the late 1970s and early ’80s (though also, very notably in Fiskadoro, in a postapocalyptic wasteland), read like a dispatch from a particular American world. They told the story of an entire country, the novels beginning at the edges–southern Florida, Provincetown, the California coast–and then moving inland. Often, in fact, they began with driving scenes, descriptions of highways, as if the author were stretching his legs. But for all the specific place names, this America could not be pointed out on a map. It was an America in which, for certain people and without proximate causes, things had gone wrong. The characters had been lumpenized, dislodged from their rightful place by a cataclysm, a storm, and they didn’t know how to get back to land. Gradually, as one read more of Johnson, the name of the storm became clear. Either because the characters had been through it, or were surrounded by people who had been through it, or lived with a kind of collective memory of it: no matter where in America they ended up in those years, the storm was Vietnam.