Poet of the Fallen World

How an S.F. theater troupe helped turn a reclusive novelist into a full-fledged playwright

To catch the bus home each day I walked through a vacant lot, and sometimes I'd run right up on one -- one small orange flower that looked as if it had fallen down here from Andromeda, surrounded by a part of the world cast mainly in eleven hundred shades of brown, under a sky whose blueness seemed to get lost in its own distances. Dizzy, enchanted -- I'd have felt the same if I'd been walking along and run into an elf out here sitting in a little chair. The desert days were already burning, but nothing could stifle those flowers.

This paragraph is typical. None of Johnson's work reads like "Christian" writing. He leaves dogma in the background, and seems to insist on the absolute freedom of ideas, so his darkest bits can be as bleak or violent or blasphemous as the most committed nihilist's. (The final scene in Soul of a Whore features a man in a clown suit hanging from a cross.) "I'm sure there are many Christians who would assure me I'm goin' to hell," Johnson says, and in fact one of Campo Santo's ad cards for the play came back to the office with a message written over the profane title: "Please stop writing me dirty letters or I will sue you."

In any case, the epiphany in Phoenix had been a missing element in Johnson's fight to get sober. He controlled his addictions later the same year, and concentrated on a novel he'd started in college. That book, Angels, follows a single mother drifting around the country with an erratic tattooed stranger. It was published in 1983, winning a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earning warm reviews from the likes of Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. (Roth called it "a small masterpiece.") In this period, he also produced two books of poetry, The Incognito Lounge in 1982 and The Veil in 1987, as well as two more novels -- Fiskadoro, a weird vision of a post-nuclear future in the Caribbean (1985), and The Stars at Noon, about an American woman in Nicaragua (1986).

Campo Santo actor Sean San José.
Kevin B. Chen
Campo Santo actor Sean San José.
Campo Santo actor Sean San José.
Kevin B. Chen
Campo Santo actor Sean San José.

By most of the usual indicators, Johnson's career was humming along, but he seems to feed on bad luck, so it's no surprise that the strange process of publishing Jesus' Son started with a bungled trip to the Philippines for Esquire in 1988. A new stage of his career should have been opening up -- adventure journalism -- but Johnson came down with malaria and felt too wrecked on his return home to finish the piece. "And it was just by horrible coincidence that my second wife was divorcing me," he says, "so I had no place to stay."

He recovered in the back room of a friend's house in the hills above Anchor Bay, near Mendocino. For money, he sent his agent a batch of stark, semi-autobiographical lowlife sketches from his days as an addict. "I almost told him, 'Don't send 'em to The New Yorker,' because I figured they would never take 'em," he says. "I was pissed off in advance." But Johnson's former editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, had just taken over as editor of The New Yorker. "He was ready to make some changes in the magazine, so he thought it'd be a laugh to publish some of these vulgar stories."

The New Yorker bought four. The Paris Review and Esquire bought a few others. Johnson still thought the pieces were too short and too bizarre for a story collection, until he hired an accountant to straighten out his finances and found himself in debt to the IRS for about $10,000. Strapped, again, for cash, he pitched a collection to his editor at the time, Jonathan Galassi, at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "I don't know if I told him it was for the IRS," says Johnson, "but I asked for that much of an advance."

The result was a junkie-thin book, called Jesus' Son after a line from Lou Reed's "Heroin." Fuckhead, the narrator, tells 11 gaunt stories about gunshot wounds, abortion, drug-wrecked lives, and the possibility of redemption in a cool, hard-boiled prose that has impressed everyone from urban hipsters like the actors in Campo Santo to establishment critics like Jack Miles, who wrote, in The Atlantic Monthly, "Denis Johnson's path as a writer -- from poetry to the novel to the short story -- is as untypical as his vision, but Jesus' Son may eventually be read not just as a moment in his evolution but as a distinctive turn in the history of the form."

During rehearsals for Soul of a Whore, in January of this year, Johnson hangs around Campo Santo's black-box theater as if he's found a second home. The ethic here is post-hippie, rough-edged, and urban. Campo Santo resides in a Mission District building that belongs to Intersection for the Arts, a 38-year-old outfit devoted to theater, jazz, literature, and graphic arts. Deborah Cullinan, Intersection's artistic director, has tattoos on her pale arms and wears secondhand dresses. She carries her infant son into the room, and Johnson gives her parenting advice. (He has three children.) "Don't send him to school," he says. "That's what fucked me up."

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