Onstage With Denis Johnson
April 21, 2008, 3:13 pm
Onstage With Denis Johnson
Last November, when Denis Johnson’s sprawling Vietnam novel “Tree of Smoke” won the National Book Award, he had good reason to miss the ceremony: he was on assignment for Portfolio magazine, in Iraq. (“Northern Iraq,” he clarified. “The peaceful part you never hear about.”) But the National Book Foundation, which bestows the prize, didn’t want the occasion to go uncelebrated, so after Johnson’s safe return it arranged for him to give a belated reading last week at a New School auditorium in Greenwich Village.
It was a rare appearance for Johnson, who tends to avoid the spotlight. He doesn’t have a Web site, he doesn’t tour in support of his books and he lives far from the New York publishing nexus in — Idaho? Texas? It depends when you ask; the man seems as rootless and transient as any of his characters. The only way to predict what he would be like onstage was to go by his writing. “Trippy,” I suggested to one of my companions, who had never read him and wondered what to expect. “Jazzy. Imagine Don DeLillo’s sentences rewritten by a mystic visionary.”
As it happens, I wasn’t even close. After the introductions Johnson approached the lectern and lowered his head to peer at the standing-room-only crowd. He has the good looks and physical presence of an outdoorsy leading man: a beefier Dennis Quaid, I thought. The young Sinatra, my neighbor thought. Then Johnson smiled. “This is from my work in progress,” he said. “It’s a short novel. Pretty literary stuff. But you’re sophisticated New Yorkers. You can handle it.”
The scene he read was about a gambler in debt to his bookie, the two of them driving around in a Cadillac with a big gun in the glove compartment. The sentences were not trippy or jazzy or mystical or visionary. They were not sprawling. Johnson read a couple of pages, then mugged a double take at his manuscript. “What the —? Where’s the literary? I thought I put something literary in my suitcase, but this is just cheap pulp fiction.” He grinned at us. Really, he explained, this was from a novel that will be serialized in Playboy, about a man down on his luck who meets a damsel in distress. He read on, turning the pages, pausing occasionally to drink from a water bottle or to laugh at one of his lines.
After the reading, Johnson took questions from the audience. Biggest influences: Chekhov and Bellow and — long pause. And that’s all. Somebody stood and rambled on a while about “Tree of Smoke,” until Johnson frowned and said, “Is there a question mark at the end of this?” There was, eventually: Why did it take him this long to write about Vietnam, and why now? Johnson nodded. Why now is easy, he said. Because it took me this long to write about it. A goateed man dressed all in black asked about the relationship between writing and drugs. Johnson waited for the crowd’s laughter to die down a bit, then said: “There isn’t one, necessarily. I mean, you can take drugs without writing and you can write without taking drugs. Personally, I think it’s a miracle I was able to become a writer at all after everything I took when I was younger.” He paused. “I think what I’m saying is, don’t do drugs if you’re really serious about becoming a writer.” He paused again. “But don’t throw away the drugs you have in your pocket.”
The last question of the night came from a woman who noted that all of the major characters in “Tree of Smoke” have competing ideas about religion and salvation, and that they seem to resolve themselves in the novel’s beautiful epilogue. Could Johnson describe his theology? It was a fair question — Jim Lewis, reviewing “Tree of Smoke” on our cover last year, speculated that when Johnson dedicated the book “To H.P.” he was thinking of “higher power” — but for somebody like Johnson, who takes whole novels to glance sidelong at the possibility that life has any meaning, it was also an impossible one to answer in a forum as circumscribed and reductive as this one. He shifted uncomfortably. “Theology?” he said. “I don’t — I can’t. I don’t have anything to say about theology.”