Remembering Denis Johnson

The next week, George and I flew to Spokane, where Brian met us in his truck and drove us all into the remote woods of far northern Idaho, to what Brian and many of the other regulars simply called ‘Chaos.’

Denis Johnson’s evolve   Jeep
Unlike Brian, I don’t remember many details of my first meeting with Denis. Denis told George some time later that the theatre taught him to respect everyone and mellow out. We were told the first night that the work on the cabin was basically finished, so Chaos ended up being calm and easygoing. We stopped at a combination gas station and bar that made Denis apprehensive. Instead, The Week of Chaos became something more uncomfortable and wonderful: an exercise in learning how to hang out with an idol. He described the actors as being so selflessly ready to work, that he decided that was really how he should be aspiring to be. Cindy was as open as Denis and also intensely interested in us, which made us comfortable. I decided after then to not learn anything he didn’t invite me to learn, and to keep myself open to whatever might be out there in Idaho. He was always far more patient and kind than he ever had to be to a bum from California, and his unique combination of candor and sensitivity is something I never expect to see again unless I’m uncommonly fortunate. The splendor of his ease leveled many of our incipient imbalances. A view from the deck at Chaos
We spent one day driving into rural Montana in Denis’s yellow Jeep – Brian, George, myself, a nice dude from Cornell named Jim, and Denis at the wheel. AK-47s have the reputation of being remarkably hardy and facile but I had trouble chambering my first round. I was already maturing into the kind of writer who was inspired by questions, not ideas, and witnessing the vigor in which he apprehended the world was both recalibrating and rejuvenating. I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.’ The feeling I was looking for in life was in Denis at that moment. In the afternoons we did short hikes, lounged on Denis’s deck, played board games, ate fruit, tried to play soccer on an uneven, sloping lawn, listened to Denis’s experiences in Africa, and talked about books and religion and travel. Maybe other people did. But I can remember watching him coil a hose, mumbling ‘Mr Dobalina, Mr Bob Dobalina,’ and it was beautiful. I never would’ve written any public account of Chaos for any reason while he was alive. For the first time, someone took a picture of Denis and I together. I just felt that there’s a time and a place for that kind of thing and this wasn’t it. Someone had a mix CD with the song ‘Mistadobalina’ by Del tha Funky Homosapien. It became an annual event which Denis called ‘The Week of Chaos.’ The full story of how this situation came about and its early years is someone else’s to tell, but by 2009 the cabin was nearly finished, and anyone who’d participated in its construction had established equity in someday using it as a writing retreat. We arrived at his place when it was still light out, and I recall a carved wooden sign by the front door reading ‘doce pasos [twelve steps] north.’ Brian explained that Denis had been sober for a long time, but guests were allowed to bring alcohol, even if the local Mennonites who sometimes came to clean the place up wouldn’t enter the house if there was beer inside. One of the women at Chaos, Ariel, who was a friend of Denis’s niece Dylana, brought a boom box outside to the wooden porch facing the pond. This man’s on vacation and thusly, so are we. FORMER VISITORS RAVE:
‘Just like a four-star hotel, only without the four-star rating.’
— Dylana
‘Just like a four-star hotel, only without the hotel.’
— Caitlin
‘I only got two meals a day.’
— Colonel Dog, Hot Air Balloon Forces of   North   Idaho
‘North   Idaho   is   my   Vietnam.’
— Lana
See you last week in July —
It sounded amazing. The forest drifted down a hill. The only conversation I had in my time there about Denis’s work was with Cindy, when she told us her story of how she agitated against the New Yorker’s editorial choice to cut the last line of ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking,’ which they did restore before publication:
‘How did the room get so white?’ I asked. A beautiful nurse was touching my skin. Is it weird that I was kind of delighted when he said that? We’ll never come close to reproducing him or his writing, but we’d all do well to imitate his kind, resolute engagement with the world, and maybe we’ll get a little closer. Even when you’re not exactly right, it feels good to have guessed. Most of the usual crowd who’d initiated Chaos weren’t around that year. Over twenty of us ate together outside on picnic tables every day as Colonel wandered among us. I suppose as a professional observer, Denis had some sense of how those of us aspiring writers around him were observing him and taking mental or literal note of things he said. I had never spent much time around any celebrated author before and those I had briefly met were often guarded and aloof. The cabin was long-finished by now, and this would turn out to be the final Chaos ever. He had handwritten a quote of Emerson’s at just about eye-level that read, ‘God will not let his work be made manifest by cowards – Self-Reliance.’
I was awed, but I felt like an intruder. At some point it came out that Denis owned an AK-47. ‘These are vitamins,’ she said, and drove the needle in. We repeated that one song so many times, it wandered into everyone’s brains, and even Denis started idly singing it while doing chores. He said it had been a while since he’d fired it and would we like a try.  

J. It made me think of that famous moments from Jesus’ Son when the narrator describes a woman’s reaction to her husband’s death: ‘What a pair of lungs! As far as I was concerned, though, I had no authority to meet this guy – I hadn’t earned my spot at the table. Still, I love what his comment buried under an otherwise idle thirty minutes. It feels good to wonder, to be puzzled, to sit in dark bars waiting for something to happen, eyes and ears unnaturally alert. He told us that he’d written another book so he’d have the money to buy his neighbor’s property. As someone who never attended an MFA program and had just a few personal writing mentors, I craved the opportunity to get to know a brilliant writer whose work I’d loved and admired for years. Sure, I can’t remember 90 per cent of what he said during his lengthy, soulful conversations with us. Still, there’s some things we talked about that I do remember and won’t discuss here or anywhere. At this point, I’d just read Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son, and this was enough to make me an eternal Denis Johnson fan. After the performances ended, Brian went up to him right away. ‘I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,’ he told Denis. I grew up in a Midwest family that’s extravagant about gun ownership, but at that point, I hadn’t fired a gun since high school. He’d returned from Africa weary and ill. He listened with great interest at our stories and tolerated our ignorance and awkward gratitude. We might have to do a lot of work.’
Brian first met Denis in June 2006, at a gala in San Francisco celebrating the Intersection for the Arts’s tenth anniversary. I had never seen True West before and this experience was made all the more staggering by the knowledge that Denis had repeatedly watched this particular version of this particular play. The next time I made it up for Chaos was three years later. Maybe someone can pick you up. Denis had just returned from Central Africa, where he’d been researching The Laughing Monsters.  
Photographs © J. The bar was dark, even in the afternoon, but it was empty, and whatever menace Denis hinted at never revealed itself. George, Brian and I drank bottles of Budweiser. Any man in my own family would’ve said the same. In act two of True West, Lee’s manic search for a pencil incited an intense reaction in Denis; pay attention, he was saying to us, you’ve never seen anything like this. Thompson.  
One morning, George, Brian and I were able to get a peek inside Denis’ office, which was in its own small outbuilding overlooking a pond. I found out later that he’d authored an influential DIY tome called The $50 & Up Underground House Book. A kind Canadian couple who’d been there for a few days was leaving, and so we got to take their spot in a cabin with bunks. I took only one photo of Denis (from behind, while he was driving his Jeep) and never once asked him to sign a book or discuss writing, either his or mine. He was one of those writers who faced a window, and the nearest wall was clustered with clippings and notes. To them I think Chaos Week was simply an outdoor retreat at the home of a friend’s middle-aged uncle. He was an expert at off-roading in a vehicle he said was a ‘pavement princess’ when he purchased it. She’s an incredibly brilliant and kind person. It made me think of the John Prine song ‘Paradise.’ Empty pop bottles was all we would kill. ‘We’ll be camping outside in tents. While I didn’t meet Denis as a student, and I rarely felt like one around him, he could still never be someone I wouldn’t try to learn from. To me, that’s who he is. I felt like he unspooled narratives all around us, consciously or not, and the conjectures he invited through an offhand comment entering a roadside bar or while examining the tracks around a huckleberry bush was intoxicating. The Jeep was attached to a trailer that read evolve   in black letters on the tailgate. She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. I said yes before even hearing the details. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you. I finished the Brian Evenson and Aimee Bender books I’d brought, and read Stories, by Scott McClanahan, an author I’d spotted on Denis’s shelf whom I’d never heard of before. That said, there was also a discretion surrounding our interactions that I wanted to keep secure, and I wanted to honor his privacy. Brian was a public policy graduate student in Santa Monica, and one of the smartest, most polite people I’ve ever met. From where I sit today, it’s tempting to view these relaxing, edifying hours as a waste of time. He was right, after all. In the middle of nowhere but surrounded by friends, generously engaged, overjoyed just to be here. When people ask me what he was like, I always think about how he listened far more intently than just about any writer I’d ever met, and held so much emotion in his eyes and his throat when he spoke of people and things he loved. A sign by the door promised to 86 anyone caught fighting inside. Maybe other people have. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. As someone born and raised in Minnesota, it soon came to feel something like visiting the home of some long-lost aunt and uncle, who’d bravely combined the gritty utility and off-the-grid mores of my conservative relatives with the inclusiveness and taste of my liberal ones. Anyone who witnessed his fervent, unguarded emotion would search the world for it. Looking back, Denis could’ve never left his office the entire time and I wouldn’t have thought less of him, and maybe some cowardly piece of my heart would’ve preferred that. The Writers’ Cabin
Brian forwarded me an old invite to give me a taste:
From:   Denis Johnson
Date: Wed, Jun 7, 2006 at 9:15 AM
Subject: Re: cabin building in Boundary County
To: Brian Dille
Dear Brian,
We’d love to have you come — here’s the info I sent out recently —
(But especially to you who demonstrated the agility, courage, and navigational skills it took to get to Doce Pasos North in 05)
Last week in July
Same deal: All who arrive will get shelter from rain and three meals a day and nothing else
poets will be treated like slaves
NEWLYWEDS WILL BE FETED (perhaps that means ‘eaten’)
Same place as last year, same directions
If you fly and you’re too cheap to rent a car from the airport, come anyway. A few neighbors, including a man everyone called ‘Barefoot Mike’, joined us for ribs and pizza that first evening. I spent more time than I should’ve at Denis’s place idly reading. ‘They don’t like me in here,’ he told us, but we all went in anyway. Before that trip, I was unfamiliar with Denis’s love for the theatre and his own work in that realm. There was also a couple of pets, the dog Colonel and the cat Hunter S. Denis was divinely relaxed, sensitive and uncommonly open. Ryan Stradal firing Denis Johnson’s AK-47
After dinner one evening we gathered in Denis and Cindy’s living room and watched a VHS tape of a Steppenwolf Theater production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Now I just want to be an employee.’
Denis did not strike me as a man who had any time for irony or the idea of guilty pleasures. I first met Denis Johnson in the summer of 2009, through my friend Brian Dille. I only knew Denis as a warm and kind person, but I referenced Brian’s intelligence and politeness earlier because you’d have to know how strong these traits are in him to understand how he could approach Denis as a complete stranger, basically admit to stalking him, and yet somehow end up talking to him for almost half an hour, eventually inspiring Denis to ask, ‘Brian, have you ever done any carpentry?’
As I understood it, as compensation for work published in McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz and a dozen or so other men and women, mostly writers, mostly with no carpentry experience, converged on Denis’s land for a week every summer to help him build a guest cabin. Still do, on both counts. Some of my favorite memories of the time I spent in Idaho are doing the dishes with her after dinner. I think Denis ordered a Diet Coke. Ryan Stradal, Michael Cryer and Brian Dille. A number of people there that year were young relatives of Denis’s and friends of those relatives, and these mostly college-age kids made their own diversions. I lived half a mile from him in Venice Beach, and I was with a fellow writer, George Ducker, on the patio of a now-defunct bar on Washington Avenue when Brian texted us, inviting us to join him for a few days on Denis Johnson’s property near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. In the summer of 2009, I had exactly one published short story to my name and a few hundred rejections. I was self-conscious about being conspicuous about it. I remember this particular detail only with the help of photographs, but I don’t need help remembering the immediate warmth of Denis and his wife Cindy. I’m sure that Denis didn’t want me or anyone else hanging on his elbow every minute, but as Eli put it when we exchanged emails after Denis died, ‘Even as it was happening, I just wanted to remember every single thing he said,’ and I regret not putting myself in more situations where I could’ve just listened to him. This time, there would be no Jeep trips into the woods, no AK-47 rounds unloaded on fallen trees, not that we minded. It was raining. To me, Denis wasn’t just the usual ‘famous author,’ this was a writer whose stories made me cry, whose books bonded me with friends and relatives. Other visitors from nearby included the local doula and her husband, a retired professor. That first year I never once spoke to Denis about his books other than to very briefly thank him for them. ‘Come on, you wimp!’ Denis said. He led us to a wild huckleberry patch and drove us through the woods for hours until we eventually found a road and wandered toward the town of Moyie Springs. ‘Even drove through Bonners Ferry trying to meet you.’ They ended up speaking for nearly thirty minutes, discussing, among other things, Christianity and Sam Shepard. He loved what he loved with ferocity, and witnessing his deep emotion and enthusiasm for this decades-old theatre production was as close as I ever came to understanding what his writing students may have experienced, how someone’s informed love dilates love and its possibilities for a listener. It’s not posed, it’s out of focus, and he’s exuberant, smiling at someone out of the frame. Denis met us outside on the gravel driveway by his yellow Jeep. I had a lot to learn, and much more work to do. We’d get to spend the time with Denis and his friends just hanging out on their 140-acre property, in exchange for daily chores like cooking, washing the dishes and running errands. ‘Before, it was just get out of my way, or find another Denis Johnson. ‘It won’t be anything glamorous,’ Brian told us. I hope it didn’t bore or annoy him, because he just about seemed to have it all figured out. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! A few hours after George and I met him, he started to weep as he told us the story of a theater director friend of his who’d passed away. I figured it out, and emptied most of my clip into a rotting log.