Denis Johnson told us what he dreamed, and he told us what was real

Author Denis Johnson (Cindy Johnson / FSG Books)

Last night I went to sleep thinking about Denis Johnson, the news of whose passing was among the last things I read before turning in for the night.

This morning, I woke to find everyone else thinking about Denis Johnson, too — many hadn’t seen the news until daybreak. One writer I know shared the news alongside a quote from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning“: “Death is the mother of beauty,” and I went to the poem and fell into it. The line appears twice:

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. [. . .]


Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.


I spent the rest of my morning writing notes for a novel about grief — a novel I’m not supposed to be working on but which called to me today.

Making lunch, I heard the sharp bleat of a police siren, those terse chirps that stand in for communication from one vehicle to another. “Move,” it says — “move over” or “move along” or “move here.” I went to my living room window and found two motorcycle cops directing a long funeral procession from the Catholic church across the street. Absent any headlights, I turned on my porch light and stood on my front stoop to witness the passing.

Afterward, while I ate my lunch, I read Kelly Abbott’s beautiful memorial to Johnson in today’s newsletter from Great Jones Street:

He died peacefully, his publisher and close friends said, in his sleep. Peacefully. A necessary lie. Fiction. Writers know nobody dies peacefully. But we can take solace nevertheless in the measurable fact that so many other lives were touched. Indeed, that is something special.

I thought to simply share the memorial on social media, but as I prepared to do so, I thought back over my morning and all the ways in which I’ve been meditating on death since I first woke up. (In fact, I even had the exterminator out here this morning. To all the ants whose deaths I’ve helped cause today: I am sorry. I hope you find happiness in your next lives.) My thoughts billowed, a gathering cloud piling high in a bright sky, so I decided to post them here on the blog instead.

I never met Denis Johnson, though I know people who knew him, some who knew him well, a few who worked with him. I’ve loved his writing and he has been a profound influence on my writing, but I make no claims to fandom — others loved his work longer and more deeply than I ever did. Rather, he was important to people who are important to me. The first time I encountered Johnson’s work, in fact, was while writing my masters thesis on Tom Franklin; a Publishers Weekly review of Franklin’s debut collection Poachers compared Franklin to Johnson and I wanted to find out why. I remember my thesis director wondering if I might not be getting ahead of myself, trying to write an entire graduate thesis on a debut story collection no one else had written about, but then I mentioned the comparison to Johnson and my mentor said, “Oh, well! This guy must really be something, then!”

This is what I was thinking about when I read Kelly Abbott’s memorial, which included this passage:

I’m thinking about the writer’s life, one in which I am both a witness and participant. Is that rare? I wonder. If not, it must be special yet. Those who live among lines must revere their purpose. There are few other writerly spoils. [. . .] On social media, you can see the respect he garnered from other writers. Whether it was by repeating the news or sharing a quote or in some cases relating a personal anecdote of a shared experience, it was clear this man was beloved. For his words, yes. But also for his deeds. I knew neither the man nor his work. I’ll carve out some time in memoriam.

I thought that sounded like a good idea. So here I am, carving time. Soon, I’ll be turning my attention to tutoring students online and I’ll be thinking about Johnson’s sentences, his attention to a language of honesty and grit, his urgent brevity, his easy conciseness. Later, I’ll revisit some of his stories, maybe check out Train Dreams from our public library.

But for now, I’ll just sit here for a few moments. Resting in this death. Thinking about words and sentences and writers and readers, lives lived and shared through the page. “Indeed,” to quote Kelly Abbott one last time, “that is something special.”

PS: A note about the title of this post: It comes from Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

Johnson, like all of us, has ended up dead. And that is a great pity, because, as a writer, he managed to tell us both what he was dreaming and what is real. The loss of such a voice is tremendous indeed.

That we have such a voice still, in his work, is also tremendous indeed.

Thank you, Denis Johnson. For the dreams, for the reality, for the words, for your life.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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