It can be difficult to read, let alone write about, a posthumous work by a beloved writer. For one thing, such books are often not very good: Consider the lovingly, if haphazardly, collected omnibus of oddments the writer might not have bothered publishing, had they lived; the perpetually incomplete would-be masterpiece wrangled into semi-coherence by well-meaning editors; the half-written draft brought to Frankensteinian life by a collaborator. We read such books with skepticism as well as sorrow; we wonder if our memory of the writer might have been better, purer, had we elected to abstain. Yet we can’t look away. And even if the book is legitimate, fully authored and authorized by its stated creator, and actually, miraculously excellent, we read it through the strange prism of its lastness. Like it or not, it’s the punctuation mark at the end of the writer’s career, and we’ll have to accept that it might serve more as ellipsis or question mark than exclamation point. All the work we hoped the writer might create—every literary apparition we’ve imagined, with the ridiculous but still palpable sense that it might somehow be realized—must be put to rest, so that we can face this final artifact. And once we’ve read it, the writer is truly gone.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that Denis Johnson died last year. His career was so idiosyncratic, his talents so enormous, so mercurial, that it seemed as though he might be able to produce a brilliant practically anything; you could imagine him writing books forever, in his mutable way, surprising you every time. The son of a State Department official, Johnson was born in Germany and spent his childhood in Washington, DC, and abroad. Before he’d even finished college, he had already published his first book of poems, The Man Among the Seals, in 1969. After a few years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and two more poetry collections, Johnson published his first novel, Angels, a stylish, gritty love story showcasing the kinds of outcasts, addicts, and criminals who would populate his fiction for the rest of his life.
Johnson’s next decade was a slow burn: Fiskadoro, a hallucinatory novel of nuclear Armageddon; The Stars at Noon, a wild, broken pseudo-thriller set in Nicaragua; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a dreamy neo-noir set in Provincetown; and more poems. But even as Johnson became famous in the 1990s, after the publication of his collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, he was as likely to puzzle as to astound. It wasn’t that his books failed to conform to expectations; it was that his talent was too slippery to set them in the first place.
Already Dead, possibly the most eagerly anticipated book of his career, turned out to be a barely coherent exercise in gothic horror; The Name of the World, a gently mournful picaresque set in academia; and Tree of Smoke, a sprawling, wildly plotted Vietnam War saga that chronicled the misery, comedy, and chaos of that conflict through a cast of eccentric characters. After that, we got a series of slimmer works of fiction: the crime story Nobody Move, the historical novella Train Dreams, and a nihilistic buddy novel set in Africa, The Laughing Monsters.
Though Johnson was too well-known to be called a writer’s writer, other writers held him in particular esteem, in part because of his reputation as a kind and generous peer, but also because we all celebrated and envied his boldly multifarious career. Of course, the work we all loved best was Jesus’ Son. Unassuming in presentation and readable in one sitting, the book was narrated in a gently self-deprecating, conversational style by a protagonist who, though unnamed, sheepishly lets it be known that people call him “Fuckhead.” Showcasing the chaotic, serendipitous lives of the disaffected and down-and-out, Jesus’ Son told their tales in prose that felt both extemporaneous and beautifully, precisely constructed. And the plot twists were legendary: Recall the strangely flirtatious Polish guy on the ferry in “The Other Man,” who steps away for a moment, only to return without his accent… or the man in “Emergency” who strolls into the hospital with a knife sticking out of his eye… or the unexplained passage, in “Work,” of a naked woman dangling from a kite.