Let’s begin with a Denis Johnson moment. One Saturday, in Los Angeles, I venture out to buy a newspaper; when I get home, I discover, wedged between its C and D sections, a grainy flier offering spiritual aid. The flier is signed by a guy named Steve, who’s a member of something called the Motorcycle Church of Christ, and right there on the paper is his phone number, inscribed neatly in ballpoint pen. Normally, I’d just throw it in the garbage without thinking about it; if I need help, I won’t be looking to a flier in the newspaper, and anyway, the Motorcycle Church of Christ? But this day, I’m feeling buffeted, aswirl in signs and incantations, indications that there’s something bigger going on. On my walk to the newsstand, I’d seen a young girl wearing an athletic department T-shirt, only instead of “Property of USC” or “Property of L.A. Dodgers,” it screamed out “Property of God.” Weirder, though–chilling, even–is this: When I left the house, I was in the midst of reading Johnson’s essay “Bikers for Jesus,” which recounts a trip he made to Newark, Texas, for the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally, a three-day evangelical revival featuring, among other born-again bikers, the selfsame Motorcycle Church of Christ.
Were I living in a different universe, I might call this a coincidence, the kind of synchronicity that arises when you have something on your mind. But in Denis Johnson’s universe there is no such thing as coincidence, only hints, clues, patterns of connection that let us see the world in a new light. His novel Already Dead is nothing less than a metaphysical passion play, in which life and death, soul and substance, come together like the threads of an elaborate tapestry, until we’re no longer sure where reality and illusion begin or end. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, meanwhile, posits God as the ultimate conspirator, less a deity than a puppetmaster whose intentions are never clear. What’s extraordinary about this vision is that for all its spiritual uncertainty, it offers moments–flashes, really–of revelation, although it’s up to us to decipher what those mean. Nowhere is this more deftly rendered than in Johnson’s story cycle Jesus’ Son, where a hopeless drifter, junkie and occasional criminal navigates a middle road between transcendence and despair. “What a pair of lungs!” he crows in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” describing a woman who has just learned that her husband is dead. “She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.” Such lines can’t help but rewire our expectations, not only because of Johnson’s willingness to sink down deep into the darkness but because, even in the throes of loss and degradation, it is often wonder that he finds.
Johnson’s first book of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, stakes out a similarly elusive territory, featuring eleven pieces that move fluidly, sometimes within the span of a single sentence, from memoir to meditation to reportage. Much of this material first appeared in mass-market publications–Esquire, Harper’s–but to call Seek a collection of magazine work would be to miss the point. Rather, in much the same way as Johnson’s fiction, the accounts here mean to get beneath the surface of their circumstances, to root out the ambiguities, the question marks, the inexplicable juxtapositions–those moments when, without warning, everything is cast in doubt. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a metaphorical world that Seek reports on: From the shattered, warred-upon landscapes of Afghanistan and Liberia to the neo-hippie enclave of the Rainbow Gathering, these are actual places full of actual people, living actual lives. But if there are no ghosts wandering California’s North Coast, no junkies having mystical visions in the backs of family cars, as in Johnson’s fiction, Seek evokes an equivalent sense of rawness, the idea that, at any instant, we may step through the looking glass into a domain unknown. “Another night under a strange sky in a different realm,” Johnson writes in a dispatch from Somalia.