WINSTON-SALEM NORTH CAROLINA, 1972. My mother has left me at the edge of the property my father’s mother shares with kin whose exact relations I’ve never sorted out. My father, in mustache and bellbottoms, is walking the path between my grandmother’s trailer and the house of a woman I call my aunt. He crouches and opens his arms and I run to him. I am small but I hurtle up my father’s path.
This scene is repeated until a day my father no longer waits for me. I pass weekends with just his mother and her kin. Then my teacher starts calling me by a different last name, and I don’t go to my grandmother’s anymore. I don’t see my father or his people for thirteen years.
Often after supper at my stepfather’s house, I go outside as if to play. Really I just sit at the corner of the yard. We live in a rural area with few passing cars, and this makes the game more excruciatingly realistic. The game is that whenever a car appears, I squint to see if the driver is a man. If he is, I squint harder to see if he has a mustache.
Port St. Lucie, Florida, 1977. I stand opposite my stepfather in a lot of sand and scutch grass. We’re twenty yards apart, maybe less; distances seem greater when you’re small. I am ten years old and I am clumsy and I’ve asked him to throw a baseball with me.
He gives me high, arcing throws, so high they seem to snatch at the lowest wisps of cloud. As each falls from its apex I dart left, then right. Toward him, then away. Sand fills my tattered sneakers. Scutch trailers snatch at my toecaps. Beneath each throw I make a frantic circle, trying to get my glove in position, terrified the ball will bypass leather and hit me square in the teeth.
Am I doing this right? I think I’m doing it right.
As the westward sun reaches the treetops, we go inside. I am sweaty and proud, having taken only one glancing blow to the side of my head, another to my shinbone. My stepfather opens a beer as my mother asks him how I did. She speaks in a high, breezy tone that means it doesn’t matter how I did, that she is happy he did something with me at the end of which he is not disgusted and I am not crying.
God knows this man knows how to tell a lie, but not this time, no sir. This evening he shoots it straight and explains that I have a lot of work to do before I’ll be worth a damn on the ballfield. He gets a second beer so he doesn’t have to get up from the couch too soon and turns on the TV.
In my bedroom I push the glove deep beneath my bed, and that is the end of my baseball career. It’s just as well; I’m too small for baseball.
The church wouldn’t approve of my taking Denis Johnson as a patron saint, but I wonder if he minds. Johnson, son of a diplomat working at the intersection of propaganda and spy craft; published poet at age nineteen, serious drinker and drug addict for the decade that followed; sober, more or less, for the four after that; playwright, teacher, journalist in the world’s worst hellholes; writer of some of the finest short stories and novels to appear in America in the past fifty years, taken by liver cancer in 2017. There are plenty of people who’ve never read him, but it’s hard to find anyone who’s read him—or who knew him—and doesn’t love him. He’s what you might call a blue-collar writer’s writer. He also survived more than one life crash and forged beauty from the ashes. I could use intervention from someone like that.
The saint I took when I entered the church a few years back is Anthony the Great—demon fighter, ascetic, master of the passions. Since my demonic passions were anger, liquor, and promiscuous sex, I figured a desert monk would make a suitable guardian. The church says to learn about your saint and pray for his intercession. What I learned about Saint Anthony is that he gave away his possessions and migrated to a cave. Got the shit kicked out of him by demons. Endured until they threw up their claws and flapped away from his unbearable holiness.
What am I supposed to do with this? I love my possessions. I can’t fast past lunchtime. And forget demon-fighting—I gave up boxing because getting knocked out made me want to curl up in a ball and cry. Pray for me, Anthony. Your life condemns mine.
A bit of his advice stuck with me, namely that we should write down every terrible thing we say or do or even think. Write it all out in a book that you keep well hidden, otherwise you’ll be joining Anthony in his cave. Come back to your sin diary frequently and meditate on your depravity, on the demonic in you.
But who wants to look into that kind of mirror?
Well, here’s this from Denis Johnson, written during his haphazard voyage into Liberia, when fury welled up at the profound, routine, unapologetic incompetence of local officials:
My parents raised me to love all the earth’s peoples. Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming N——s! N——s! N——s! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me.
Denis Johnson does not use dashes. He writes the word that went through his head.
Or the moment in his novel Angels when a mother wants to kick her wheedling toddler into traffic—which I think you only conjure, as a writer, if you have yourself been in charge of a small child and found yourself itching to do the same thing.
Johnson’s sin diary was his portrayal of characters, and he opened it to us not with the sly eye of an exhibitionist, nor with the desperate clickability of a modern memoirist. The title of Denis Johnson’s sin diary isn’t Look At Me, but rather I’m No Better Than Them.
A writer who identifies with broken people faces a temptation to imbue himself with picaresque virtue, but Johnson doesn’t romanticize his characters. He may offer them bloody redemption, but he doesn’t let them (nor, one suspects, himself) off the hook. Not a chain-smoking, needle-pushing, whisky-guzzling, murdering, robbing, seducing, responsibility-shirking, godforsaken one of them.
No, not godforsaken. Manforsaken, certainly, but not godforsaken, which was maybe Johnson’s whole point, if you want to whittle him down that way—that the worst among us are not godforsaken but godpursued. It’s comforting to have such a reassuring saint, don’t you think?
Except this: His conviction implies that any of us who wants to be holy, or even just a decent human being, has to do the same. Pursue the lost sheep, the ugly sheep, the shit-in-the-wool, ornery, wandering sheep. But sheep don’t know the first thing about how to hurt us.
Jupiter, Florida, 1979. My stepfather has been drinking all day. My mother is sleeping because she took my brothers—his real sons—and me to the laundromat, and we wore her out. He sits beneath the shade of an awning and calls me to him. I can tell by his bleary eyes that something bad is about to happen, but running will make it worse.
The threads of my cutoff jean shorts dangle about my thighs like spider webs. He grips my arm and ignites his lighter and holds the flame to one of the threads. It slowly burns upward, then extinguishes against my thigh. He lights another strand, then another, until my shorts look like an upside-down birthday cake.
Crying will make him angry, so I grit my teeth and wince with each flame’s bite. But I’m not tough enough, and as the bites multiply, I begin quietly sobbing. He lights a cigarette and scrutinizes my weakness through the haze of burning tobacco, denim, and hair.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1987. My father lives with his third wife twenty miles away. I’ve spent the weekend with them at their house being careful not to spill anything on their furniture. It’s Sunday, and he’s brought me back to my dorm. He fishes a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket.
“I don’t want money,” I tell him. “I want to be your friend.” This isn’t true, but it makes me feel less ashamed. It’s the first and last time he ever gives me money.
I need to share something with you about hell. A few years back, my oldest son was so hateful to one of his brothers I nearly punched him. It makes no sense, wanting to do violence to your child for hurting your other child. I’ve never hit any of my children. I understand that’s a boast most parents don’t feel compelled to make.
Instead of hitting the boy, I offered a Bible lesson. “God will forgive almost anything, except our unforgiveness. What that means is when you hurt someone, you jeopardize their salvation. You put them in a position where they have to forgive you in order to reach heaven.”
I’ve been thinking about hell more often as I age. I’ve done many things that may earn me a place there, but it galls me that what may seal my damnation is my inability to forgive these motherfuckers, my fathers. My twin millstones.
Forgiveness seems to come easy to Denis Johnson. Take Bill Houston, a character in his novel Angels, who excels not only at wrecking his own life but at dragging other people beneath the rubble. A shallow opportunist, a drunk, an abuser, a thief, and eventually a murderer, Houston finds himself on the slick, straight death-row rail, and the thing is, he deserves it. But here is Johnson, holding Houston’s hand where it trembles beneath a cinched gas-chamber strap, counting with him his final heartbeats, and letting him earn, at the tail end of his sorry-ass life, a redemption that puts someone like me to shame:
He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it. But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And another coming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come. That’s it. That’s the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.
Writing about Johnson in n+one, Justin Taylor said that his characters “are people who do not know they are already in Hell, or purgatory, but for all his unsparing grimness in depicting those dark realms, Johnson does not damn his lost souls to stay lost.” Similarly, Brian Dille wrote of Johnson in the Los Angeles Review of Books that he “always extends to his characters the possibility of the same grace that he himself experienced.”
Johnson loves his reprobates in their stupidity and hatefulness and incompetence. Not with a sentimental, put-your-kid’s-crappy-painting-on-the-refrigerator kind of love, but with a love that is fully cognizant of their shittiness. And in offering them redemption, he shows you how all the ugly people you want to write off might also be redeemed, if not in their circumstances then at the very least in the hardened soil of your own heart.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to love a fictional scoundrel of your own creation, who has only as much autonomy as you’ve afforded him, than it is a real live nasty human being with whom you’re consigned to live, or at least share Thanksgiving. But there’s a generosity of spirit in Johnson that lights the way (or pricks the conscience). Perhaps unsurprisingly, many acquaintances testified after his passing to Johnson’s gentle, loving manner.
There’s probably no use in parsing whether it’s the lovingkindness of the writer that generates mercy on the page or the other way around. Either way, it’s hard to read Saint Denis and not come away ready to love someone.
Maybe even a member of your own goddamned family.
So I try to get there by conjuring pity. A year ago, my ex-wife called to tell me that my father, who was planning to take our kids to the state fair, wanted money to pay for their food. The truth is that his wife wanted the money. She can pinch a penny until Abe Lincoln hollers. I wonder if he ever told her about that hundred-dollar bill.
That very same week, my stepfather took me aside to ask for gas money. But that wasn’t really it, either. He likes to buy lottery tickets, and his newest wife has him on a tight budget.
My father has a million-dollar beach house while my stepfather has an apartment, but their leashes are equally short. Could you conjure pity for an old dog that used to bite?
Or how about the dog that whimpers outside your window? They text, email, and occasionally leave voicemails—How are you? How are my grandchildren? When can we get together? And I—cruel, petty little god I’ve become—delay for weeks before showing a little pity: So busy right now. Here’s a picture. Let’s find a time soon.
They’re graying, and I’m running out the clock. I know Saints Anthony and Denis expect more of me than pity. I know what they want me to give.
But Denis, how do you love these people? You battled drugs and alcohol the way Anthony wrestled demons, yet when you visited drug-gobbling hippies as they congregated for a mass reunion in the Ochoco National Forest, the worst you had to say about them was this:
Yes! They’re still at it!—still moving and searching, still probing along the thoroughfares for quick friends and high times, weather-burned and dusty and gaunt, the older ones now in their fifties and a whole new batch in their teens and twenties, still with their backpacks, bare feet, tangled hair, their sophomoric philosophizing, their glittery eyes, their dogs named Bummer and Bandit and Roach and Kilo and Dark Star. And as they pass each other they say, “Loving you!”—Loving you! It serves for anything, greeting and parting and passing, like “aloha,” and it might burst from a person at any time as if driven by a case of Tourette’s, apropos of absolutely jack. Everybody keeps saying it.
In a brief passage you capture their shallowness, hopefulness, jadedness, innocence, uselessness, unoriginality, and perseverance in the face of all these. But where is your condemnation for their part in luring you as a teenager into their heroin dens and bonfire boozefests? Their complicity in the destruction of so many less tenacious than you?
Saint Denis doesn’t have it in him, the instinct to condemn. Maybe because condemnation requires a truncated story, and he’s too good a writer for that. For most of my life I’ve assumed people love because they can turn a blind eye, but maybe I’ve gotten it backwards. Maybe it’s the blind eye that enables us to hate.
I need to tell you about Sergeant Jimmy Storm. You know him if you’ve read Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s novel set during the Vietnam War, which garnered him the 2007 National Book Award. Or maybe you read it and still don’t know Storm, for, as another character in the novel says: “What do we really know about anybody in this hall of mirrors?”
Meaning, of course, what do we really know about ourselves, and how does what we think we see in those mirrors distort what we see in others?
What seems clear enough is that Storm is a redneck, a Benzedrine-popper, a sadist, an architect of destruction. Tasked (and well suited) to psychological warfare, he is a font of murderous innovation. He advocates clearing the intricate tunnels used by the Vietcong by flooding them with LSD. “Those bastards would come swarming out of those holes with their brains revved way past the redline.”
There are no rules on Sergeant Storm’s battlefield. “This is a rock ‘n’ roll war,” he says. Bearing no belief in heaven but ample faith in hell, he wants to turn the tunnels into a region of it. “We live in the post-trash,” he says. “It’ll be a real short eon.” And later: “It’s all death anyway.”
My stepfather was in one of the heavily armed, long-range reconnaissance units in Vietnam which Johnson describes in passing detail, their every member as psychotic and bloody-minded as Storm. Like Storm, he regards the hell he helped fashion as a judgment against God. Like Storm, he came home from that place with the stink of brimstone in his clothes.
I could stop here—I’ve stopped here before, when writing about him, and my father, and others in my family. Pages that felt righteous to me, but which angered and hurt them. They just don’t like the truth, is what I told myself at first. Later, and with a dose of self-pity: Maybe I shouldn’t have told the truth.
But there’s more than one mirror in this hallway, says Denis Johnson.
So walk a little farther with Sergeant Storm, whose heart is beginning to break. “Man, no, don’t,” he says meekly as a soldier gouges out the eyes of a prisoner with a spoon. And moments later, when his commander shoots the prisoner in the head to end his torture: “Goddamn fucking right.” Is this benediction offered for the mercy, or the murder? Does Storm even know? “I started out with a red-hot desire to fry their minds,” he says. “Now I spend my day trying to keep my own mind from exploding.”
Plagued by guilt and anger, Storm seeks peace among shamans. “You cannot be healed,” one tells him. When another asks if he has a message for God, he says: “Break on Through.” Is this the closest he can get to salvation from his rock ‘n’ roll war?
Not with Saint Denis watching. Instead he sends Storm on a journey that enables him to realize: “Somewhere along the odyssey of years he’d negotiated a crossing without acknowledging its keeper or paying its necessary tribute.”
And do you know why Storm made that crossing? Because he was following the path of his figurative father. As was another character in the novel, who likewise must pay tribute to the inexorable laws of sin and justice, of fathers and sons.
My fathers made their crossings, as have I. Now I see my own sons on the path behind. Saint Denis, can you conjure a little pity for them? Their bill for my sins included my emotional and often physical absence. My irascibility and distraction. And only children of divorce can understand the small but chronic miseries of shuffling between two households.
If I’m any different than my stepfather, it’s that I didn’t use my fists to hurt them. If I’m any different than my father, it’s that I didn’t give them the mercy of a clean break.
I’m remarried now, living not far from their mother. They and my wife enjoy one another’s company more often than not. My ex-wife is on good terms with me, and with my present wife. It’s turned out about as well as a divorce can, but there’s no changing that those scars run all the way to bone, and I’m the one who held the blade.
And maybe it’s not really all that good. Maybe I’m just choosing which mirrors I survey, just like my fathers before me.
I feel them in my bones as the years pass. Sometimes my boys and I dance conversationally around something hard, and I hear myself give the faux hearty laugh my own father gives when he and I are avoiding real conversation. Or I start talking gruff and tough to straighten out a wayward son, and I hear my stepfather’s bluster. I hate myself in those moments.
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to see how a man who hates his father inevitably hates himself, and perhaps vice versa. I don’t care to untangle it. I just want my boys to be okay. To be something better than me. But the fact I can’t escape is that your children are inclined to follow your path, even if they hate you. Even into hell.
Which means that if you want your children to be better human beings, you have to better yourself. I’m tempted to despair at this, but Saint Denis, God bless him, shows that any one of us can ascend from the hell in our hearts. Not one of us is lost, not even the very worst, which is to say, me and you. But there’s a bill to pay. There’s always a bill.
My ex-wife would do this thing at the end of church, when the preacher offered the benediction. She would hold open her hands, like grace is a thing you can receive on your palms. Like grace is a thing that can be sent forth by a good word. Like grace is a baby that can be held in your trembling hands.
I always thought it was a sweet gesture, but I was too self-conscious to join her. Besides, rational men know grace is too ethereal to fall down into your hands. But I’ve been thinking that I was wrong, terribly wrong, because this woman who opened her palms for whatever good words can bestow, well, she forgave me for my infidelities and my years of unkind words and my just giving up on her and our boys, and though she’s better than most she is no saint, and so that mercy she offered had to come from somewhere, and I can’t help thinking it came from those open palms.
And here I stand in the twin shadows of these fathers, each in his own way pleading, and I hold out to them my empty hands as if to say: There is no room within the cave of my heart.
But if there is no grace in these hands or heart of mine, to what will I cling as my own life comes to its close? What grace awaits me in the hands of my own sons, when they are men, when I have grown small in their eyes?
I crave their forgiveness, yes, and more besides. I want them to see the man who ran to a collision and pulled a woman from the wreckage and made sure she could breathe until the ambulance arrived. Who might have quoted Grainier from Johnson’s Train Dreams: “I’m not a doctor. I’m just the one that’s here.”
I want them to see the man who nursed their sister night and day for the months it took the brain tumor to kill her. Who fed her formula through teeth clenched by its pressure on her brainstem. Who held her through her shrieking and promised: Jesus is coming, he is coming, I swear he is coming.
I want them to understand—but never know—what came after, the self-destruction fueled by my fury at God, captured well by Johnson’s protagonist in The Name of the World:
I didn’t think often about that which people called God, but for some time now I’d certainly hated it, this killer, this perpetrator, in whose blank silver eyes nobody was too insignificant, too unremarkable, too innocent and small to be overlooked in the parceling out of tragedy.
I want them to see the parts of me, in other words, that have some worth, and the history that explains the worst of me, and for their own sake to see as well that a man always has choices. To see me with the eyes of Saint Denis, if they can.
So were I to live as a man whose hands bear grace, now might be the time to tell you how, when I was a boy of maybe fifteen, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a thousand angelic trumpets announcing the Second Coming of Christ. I was filled with terror, because I had convinced myself that I did not believe in Jesus, which meant now the bill was coming due, and I was going straightaway to hell. I lay absolutely still in hope that the dread vengeful eye of God would overlook me beneath my blankets.
The trumpeting dwindled to a single car horn. Then there was the sound of footsteps across our living room floor, and our screen door slamming open, and the crackle of its spring drawing it back, and then its rattle in the door frame.
Just as Fuckhead realized, in one of Johnson’s stories in Jesus’ Son, that his vision of angels descending from a rent in the sky was simply a distant drive-in movie, I deduced that what had happened was not the Second Coming but a car crash, and that my stepfather had run outside to help. Greatly relieved, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Outside, I learned later, he struggled to single-handedly revive a dead man. He got his heart beating again, but it stopped before the ambulance arrived.
I know this bothered him for a very long time, not that I ever asked directly.
And now that I’m trying to hold this grace like water in my hands, I will tell you how my daughter’s doctors, after they discovered the tumor, sent us to a children’s hospital in another state that specialized in this sort of thing. Stay away, we told all our family after we got there. We’re barely managing and there’s no room here for visitors anyway. She endured all manner of pointless tortures there, before a trio of unholy wise men stood over her bed and pronounced a death sentence.
So we were stranded and sleep-deprived and broken in that tiny hospital room, put on notice to vacate (just as soon as we settled up with billing). It was my father who jumped on a plane and arrived uninvited, pacing outside the room, giving us space because we were half-crazed, but also taking charge to get us out of that hell and moving homeward.
I had been waiting on him for years to rescue me, and though he was late, and like any man hasn’t the power to send hell back out of this creation, he came. He finally came.
Denis Johnson offered three rules of writing, as relayed by his friend Lawrence Wright:
Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
Father Denis, I haven’t the courage to speak a word of what I’ve written here. Yet this is my blood, poured out on this page. Even that took no courage; sometimes it just feels good to bleed.
And home? What is that? I tried to build one blueprintless for my children, but I fucked it all up. And here I am, failure and hypocrite, trying again. I don’t know if I can do it. I really don’t. Between the self-pity and the self-hatred and just the sheer fatigue and sorrow, I don’t know if I can carry this burden all the way. As I write this, my children and wife are downstairs and I am cloistered in my office and I am weeping and I am trying to muster the strength to go down there, feigning cheer, to give them a Sunday afternoon with a husband and father worth remembrance.
Years ago, I gripped the barrel of my Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter between my teeth and offered God a deal. You don’t have to let me into heaven, just let me sit outside the gate. Take my children in their time, but let me listen to their voices. For the eternity to come, I ask only to hear joy. I had in mind the eighty-fourth Psalm:
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand outside.
I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
I’d imbibed enough bourbon and self-pity for it to make sense in the moment, but thankfully I didn’t have the courage. Or maybe I was just too tired to confront what waits beyond this veil.
But turn your eyes with me one last time to Sergeant Jimmy Storm, who pays his bill by substituting himself for a boy about to be immolated in a tribal ritual. As he lies on the pyre and watches the smoke rising like incense toward heaven, a poem he has written burns. One of its stanzas reads:
Man when I’m in my grave don’t wanna go to Heaven
Just wanna lie there looking up at Heaven
All I gotta do is see the motherfucker
You don’t need to put me in it
When I first met Jimmy Storm, I mistook him for my stepfather. But now I see that he is me.
In the years since that night with the gun, I’ve talked to other hopeless faithful with the same wish. I know I’m not good enough to be there, but does mercy mean I can camp outside your gates? I wonder if the demons have a similar longing, for a lesser damnation. Saint Athanasius, biographer of my official patron saint, was said to pray that they might receive it. In this he and Saint Denis are similar, never losing hope for the hopeless.
And my God, how I want to believe they’re right. At the end of Tree of Smoke, a broken character surveys an audience of seemingly self-possessed philanthropists, sensing the hidden ache there, and above them all the mysterious mercy of God:
someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.
Amen, Brother Denis. Amen, amen, amen.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.