Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

I was an MFA writing fellow at the University of Texas while Denis Johnson was teaching in the program. Denis saw a production of one of my plays and liked it, and we got to know each other a little. In the summer of 2002, I happened to be driving to Idaho and Denis invited me to visit him at his home in the panhandle. Before I drove up from Moscow, a few hours south, I asked him if there was anything I could bring. Some half and half, please. It was a half-hour drive to the nearest store from the Johnsons’ house.

The property bordered on a federal wilderness area on one side and Canada on another. Denis told me to look for a gate and a sign that said “Doce Pasos North.” The reference, he explained, unnecessarily but as a sort of formal declamation, a diplomatic laying-aside of the entire matter, was to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I used to be quite the drinker,” he said, in a way that was at once offhand but definitive, understatement so laconic that it seemed intended to draw a vast pandemonium into a plainly marked but remote container. (I think he also told me he liked the name’s homophonic resemblance to John Dos Passos.)

Parked outside the house was a large vintage Cadillac convertible. Denis had bought it while he was in Texas, the crowning accessory to a general re-costuming he had undertaken when he was teaching there (cowboy hat, boots). It was a great car, he said, he’d always wanted a car like that, although he allowed that this collectible was now up in the weather of northern Idaho and was I interested in buying it. He was willing to give me a good deal and he had a price already in mind. About a decade earlier, when Jesus’ Son came out, I was talking about the book with a colleague who said he liked it but sniffed in it something of a put-on. In Idaho, Denis told me: “I wrote it because I needed money.”

The coffee mugs in the Johnsons’ kitchen were labeled “Bob” and “Barbara.” I asked Denis about this, given that no one residing at Doce Pasos North had these names. He told me that the mugs had come with the house, which he had bought, years earlier, with all the money he had in the world, from a Hollywood payout for a screenplay, as I recall him telling me. When he toured the property as a prospective buyer, he found the shed stocked with pieces of heavy machinery and outdoor equipment, such as snowplows, and he began to wonder if he had the means to resupply it and keep up with the necessary maintenance. No, no, said the owner, Bob, who was retiring with his wife Barbara to a warmer climate: The snowplow is yours. Everything is yours, including the coffee mugs. That decided Denis. All he added to the property was a name.

There was a guest cabin down the hill and another one over by a pond, where Denis wrote. In the middle of the field between these two structures, stove into the ground at an acutely broken angle, as if it had crashed there, was a giant industrial sculpture that resembled—no, that was—an airplane, or an 18-wheeler truck trailer, something like that. I’m sure it was one of those things; I just can’t remember which. I asked about this too. Oh, that, Denis said. As I recall, he had taken it in as some sort of stray remnant of freight, intending to do something with it (which may have been simply to dispose of it); but, well, here it was now. It was massive and towering. I recall reading that Denis once had a Great Dane, and this helps me make sense of the sculpture, and maybe the Cadillac and the alcoholism: treat it like a pet.

I say “as I recall,” “I recall reading.” I could do some research and verify the existence of this Great Dane, but I’m going by the way Denis worked when he was a sort of second-wave New Journalist earlier in his career, visiting and reporting on war-torn lands around the world: He went into these places deliberately uninformed about them and their political situations. He was after their feel, not the facts (he had the poet’s eye and ear), and he could apprehend it only from a position of voluntary ignorance and personal immersion. What he didn’t say was that he got better stories this way, too. He’d once been assigned (by the New Yorker, I think) to go to Liberia and procure an interview with its murderous dictator, Charles Taylor.  He got the interview but botched the recording and came back with nothing to show for it. The New Yorker rejected the piece. Denis rewrote it and published the new account in Harpers. It’s a nearly perfect story. It’s in his nonfiction collection, Seek, which I haven’t read, because I prefer the versions of these tales that I heard from Denis at Doce Pasos North.

Denis talked about going to Afghanistan, in the mid- or late nineties. While he was there, most of the Western press was confined to a single hotel in Kabul. Evidently the situation was so dire that Christiane Amanpour, of CNN, and her crew were bailing out, even though Amanpour was scheduled to interview one of the principals in the conflict. Denis was offered the chance to interview the subject, who was quite keen to speak to journalists. It was Osama Bin Laden. Denis didn’t know who Bin Laden was, but then, no one really did yet. He declined the interview. I sometimes wonder if everything in the world would be different if he hadn’t.

The Johnsons’ spread in Idaho was so nearly unmanageable that Denis had made a few deals with supposed devils, loggers, who did controlled clearing that carved out roads the Johnsons could use. He and I were walking up one of them, steep, Denis huffing. He had a sizable gut but said he used to be thin when he was young. As he got older and his body inclined toward thickening, his trips to the Third World helped regulate his weight gain. He would go to Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan, get very sick, wind up in the hospital and lose a lot of weight there. But then of course he would put it back on. He asked me how I stayed in shape. I wasn’t really eating at the time but this did not seem right to say, in the same way that Denis said nothing more than that he used to be quite the drinker. I said I got a lot of exercise, which was true.

For dinner, Denis’s wife, Cindy, cooked cheeseburgers that were delicious, and we told her so as we were eating them. “Good,” she said, “because I made you two.” It was a relief when Denis declined his second burger, which permitted me to do the same. With us at the table was another couple, a family relation—a cousin or brother or sister, whether Denis or Cindy’s I can’t recall. But I do remember this very clearly: After dinner, the subject of the Final Judgment came up. The family spoke of this equably and simply. Is the reckoning imminent, Cindy or Denis asked the visiting relatives–the cousin, the sister? That wasn’t yet clear, one of them answered, but she added firmly: “But I do believe these are the End Times.” That seemed to settle the matter. The table was cleared.

I slept in the cabin down the hill at the bottom of the field. It was comfortable but primitive. As I recall it had gas but no electricity, or it may have been the other way around. Among the few books in the cabin was Heart of Darkness, which I had somehow, absurdly, never read. I like to think, probably wrongly, that he was re-reading it while he was working on his novel Tree of Smoke, which he was probably writing at the time. I’m just now remembering that the Hollywood money with which Denis bought Doce Pasos North came from adapting a Conrad novel for the screen. I think it was The Secret Agent. Whichever it was, I remember that Denis called it “his worst book.” I was jarred by this opinion, not because I disagreed with it—I hadn’t read the novel—but because opinions about value at Doce Pasos North seemed somehow too impoverished, or immaterial, or maybe too difficult to form. He told me that while adapting The Secret Agent he was put up at Shutters, the famous beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. He worked on the screenplay and ordered all of his food from Shutters’ restaurant and had it charged to his room, which he said he was unaware he was not supposed to do. I sensed a put-on there too, but it made for a better story, which verged on a writer’s fantasy: left alone in his room by the sea, unsupervised, living deeply in a single book and gorging on room service until one day an accountant, settling unpaid accounts, happens upon the astounding bill, and the forgotten writer is suddenly remembered and retrieved. The Conrad project was terminated and Denis was paid his fee, which he spent on the place in Idaho.

A student in one of Denis’s workshops in Texas told me about the day a certain well-known author came up in class, and it wasn’t until after a lengthy discussion that Denis, who had been silent, finally interrupted to be reminded of the author’s name. He had never heard of this person. He was well known to cry in class, while on his office door in Texas was a note that said: “I LOVE YOU. And I will not write you a recommendation.” That was it, too: the frank naked naive emotion that knew when and where and how to retreat behind closed doors; the salesman with a wink who knew how was going to sell you on something, which is after all what storytellers do, and why all good writing is in some way a put-on; the announcement of Twelve Steps right at the entrance to his territory, and I used to be quite the drinker—and that was all he was going to say, and it was enough. The rest is in his books.

I stayed up and read Heart of Darkness all the way through. I was glad—no, I was ecstatic that I had never read it before, because if I had I could not have read it for the first time like this, by flashlight or moonlight or no light at all in a primitive cabin at Doce Pasos North. Even now, with each revelation of a book I should certainly have read by now but have not, which happens all the time, I think happily of Denis not knowing the author under discussion in his class, and I feel encouraged, fortified, as I do by a short passage from Tree of Smoke that I can’t find now and don’t want to. It’s about being deeply absorbed into, wetted by reading and truth, an endless baptism. It’s a passage that a good literary sensibility would probably deem overheated, maybe even ridiculous, the counterweight to the practiced understatement of Doce Pasos North. But when I think of knowing Denis, just the little way I knew him, it’s what I think of, and since his death, I see him walking in the brightness of everything he doesn’t know, dazzled.

Late the next morning, before I left, Denis took me down to show me his office by the pond. It was sunny and hot, the middle of August, and before we went inside he suddenly ripped off his shirt, exposing his big belly, and jumped in the water and swam around for a few minutes to cool off. He told me, and has told others, that writing a novel is like rowing out to sea. There’s a point at which you have no idea where shore is anymore. After he got out and dried off, he wanted to sign and give me one of his books, observing the ritual of the older writer bestowing a token on the younger. He couldn’t find any handsome first editions in his office, so he apologized and gave me a used paperback copy of Fiskadoro, which I had not read. Of course I’ve made sure to keep it with me ever since. I’ve still never read it.


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