By Denis Johnson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1983
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
It seems to me like the enormous success of 1992's Jesus' Son spoiled Denis Johnson. That book is great: deft in managing its odd fragmented timeline, willing to take immense narrative stunt-dives like the "you ridiculous people" ending of "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," unflinching in its grotesqueness but not without moments of beauty, even moments that transcend the grime. Johnson himself has been oddly dismissive of the work, describing it as a rip-off of Babel's terrific Red Cavalry, but if you ask me, it's everything you could ask a short story collection to be, and it won the guy immense acclaim and his biggest following to date - apparently the "Jesus' Son rip-off" is a workshop cliché on par with the "Raymond Carver rip-off," although I've never encountered either.
The trouble as I see it is what came after. I know Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams won the guy piles of awards and are usually considered modern masterpieces, but I wasn't fully satisfied with either. The Vietnam-themed Tree of Smoke had some solid moments, but they were undercut by a downright flabby 600-page length, circular conversations about covert operations, and a clichéd conflict about a young man trying to out of the old man's (his uncle, in this case) shadow. Train Dreams left me cold for the most part, its lament for the death of the frontier undercut by dull prose, an embarrassing tendency to depict Native Americans as savages, and a tone of stifling seriousness that makes its slim length a slog. I am, in short, absolutely confused as to why so many readers see these books as masterpieces of modern fiction. To me, they're ponderous and self-consciously literary in a way that'll win them as many prizes as possible. I guess I just want my weird Denis Johnson back.
Angels, however, is a little different. It's easily my favorite of Denis Johnson's novels (although I've only read those three), and might be my favorite of all Denis Johnson's work (although I've only read four of his books total), and it was written back when his biggest supporters weren't prize committees but other authors. Does that in and of itself make it a better book? I'm not sure, but I do know big-name authors love this book to death. Don DeLillo blurbed it as "dazzling and memorable," which seems kinda redundant because you'd expect to remember if you were dazzled, but the point certainly comes through. Philip Roth also chimed in to sing its praises, and like he did with Omensetter's Luck, David Foster Wallace included it in his list of the most overlooked novels since 1950, which is, yep, where I first heard about it. None of the other three novels on that list are debuts, or else I'd have a series-within-a-series. So while it took quite a while for Denis Johnson to become the prominent author he is now, he certainly had quite the early batch of supporters.
Not to mention quite the backstory! Born in Berlin in 1949, he traveled the world with his State Department-employed dad, published his first book of poetry at age 19, and spent most of the '70s fighting heroin addiction. By 1978, he'd had enough of that lifestyle, and moved to his parents' home in Arizona to sober up. He wrote this book while fighting through the last dregs of his addiction, which explains the themes of struggle and redemption portrayed throughout it, as well as Johnson's fascination with the people on the margins. Indeed, his two main characters are the sort of people most of us wouldn't even think twice about if we saw them on the street: Jamie Mays, who runs away from her abusive husband in California with a child in tow, and Bill Houston, a small-time criminal who comes from a fire-and-brimstone Christian family.
The plot here's pretty loose. Jamie and Bill meet at a bus station and Bill proposes to take Jamie away. Jamie at first dislikes Bill, but eventually decides she has nothing to lose, so the two of them drift over to a grimy nightmare vision of Chicago full of dive bars and addicts and all sorts of cruelty. The whole visit goes horribly, horribly wrong, and the two of them end up in Bill's native Arizona, where the aforementioned fire-and-brimstone Christians enter the picture and things amazingly manage to get worse. See, Houston's family is horribly dysfunctional. His younger brother is a desperate drug addict, his father is a vapid nihilist, his mother's fervent spirituality dominates and distorts her every thought and action. To feed his addiction, the youngest Houston stages a bank robbery, and Bill is perfectly willing to go along - anything for the easy money, after all. Needless to say, the bank robbery doesn't end well, either. I won't spoil anything, except to say that there's a haunting mental hospital scene toward the end punctuated by a side character's hallucinations, which are portrayed with an immense respect and empathy so lacking in the Train Dreams-era Native Americans; you feel the guy's pain, you feel his horror, you're brought into the moment.
This is what I mean when I say Johnson has since gotten too serious, too conventionally literary. Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams' content are closer to a canonically enshrined novel than Angels, with Tree of Smoke even referencing the great and definitely canonized Graham Greene, but neither of them feel as authentic, as empathetic, and above all as well-written as Angels does. Only Denis Johnson could've written this novel, and he takes advantage of it by writing the struggles of the misfits and the marginalized so skillfully that you find yourself struggling alongside them. This is wonderful writing. I believe the highest and noblest goal of fiction is to transfer an experience onto the reader, and Angels does so, where the two later novels merely describe experience.
Of course, the telling's as important as the tale. Angels is told in Johnson's inimitable vignette style. He'd use this to arguably greater effect with Jesus' Son, but he does a great job of it here. Johnson not only prefers short scenes, but (and I guess this is what he has in common with Babel) likes to fade in and out of scenes at unexpected moments. Sometimes the cut happens so fast as to be clumsy; my most significant complaint about this novel is it feels like two novels mashed together. The move from Chicago to Arizona certainly isn't the smoothest transition ever set to type (frankly, it reminds me of the PowerPoint-style transitions George Lucas peppered the Star Wars prequels with), but with all the good work Johnson does elsewhere, that's a small thing to complain about.
I'm sorry if too much of this review came off as me complaining about Denis Johnson's decline, but I did feel it was important to convey my disappointment with the guy's later work. Part of that is because I thought I was looking at a new favorite author after I read Jesus' Son for, yep, my MFA program, had that feeling confirmed when I picked this up, and then was brought crashing down to earth by Tree of Smoke's overbearing heaviness, but I also take objection to novels like Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams, the overly-serious this-is-about-America books, because so many compelling oddball writers fell into that trap in the '90s and '00s and haven't been the same since. Take Don DeLillo. I know people love Falling Man and that's fine, but it doesn't have anywhere near the same life as the far shaggier Americana. Not to say great work hasn't been done in this mode. See Roth's American Pastoral or DeLillo's own Underworld, or the magnificent novels of Toni Morrison for an example of this-is-about-America books that retain the spirit and fascinatingly odd turns of Angels-type books. I guess my point is they don't all have to be serious books about America.
As you might've inferred, a lot of people love the later Denis Johnson, and if that sounds like your type of thing, don't let me stop you from picking up Train Dreams. You'll probably finish it in an afternoon. However, there's as much room in the literary world for a book like this as there is for a book like Train Dreams, and I wouldn't want to see literary fiction railroaded down the "serious books about America" line when there are a thousand different possibilities. So pick this one up! It really is underread; as David Foster Wallace pointed out, not even a lot of Denis Johnson fans have read it. in some ways it strikes me as a more comprehensible version of what Burroughs was trying to do with his good but flawed Naked Lunch, in that it's an invitation for those on the center to have empathy for those on the outside. To me, that makes Angels about as valuable as a novel can be.