Johnson began publishing at age 20 with a book of poems (the first of four), and though accomplished and striking, they are all imitations to a greater or lesser degree of W. S. Merwin's great 1968 book, The Lice. All four books are collected in the 1995 anthology The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. All the poems shine in some way, and the best breakup line of all time is here: "(This is) the story that begins/I did not know who she was/and ends I did not know who she was" ("Sway"). The personal, postmodern, colloquial, and unreliable narrative that gives Johnson's novels their kick seems to start here with the poem "The Skewbald Horse," an explanatory memoir of Ireland during the Famine, spun from a classic folk song. Fiction is very obviously Johnson's forte: The tale is nearly prose, with only the slightest incantatory lilt, but it is one of the most remarkable short pieces of recent times.
The novels that had to share the stage with the poems (The Stars at Noon, and in 1983, his stellar debut, Angels) were short power-books like Jesus' Son, but no preparation for what came next. Fiskadoro is a dense and crystalline myth--set down in simple, gorgeous sentences--of life in Key West 60 years after a nuclear holocaust. It is nothing like it sounds. With a grace to match the best of Joseph Conrad, the book's closest relations in American literature are Moby- Dick and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Listen to how it begins:
Here, and also south of us, the beaches have a yellow tint, but along the Keys of Florida the sand is like shattered ivory. In the shallows the white of it turns the water such an ideal sea-blue that looking at it you think you must be dead, and the rice paddies, in some seasons, are profoundly emerald. The people who inhabit these colors, thanked be the compassion and mercy of Allah, have nothing much to trouble them. It's true that starting a little ways north of them the bodies still just go on and on, and the Lord, as foretold, has crushed the mountains.... It strains all belief to think that these are the places the god Quetzalcoatl, the god Bob Marley, the god Jesus, promised to come back and build their kingdoms. On island after island, except for the fields of cane popping in the wind, everything seems to be asleep.
I cannot think of another book that is both so wildly imagined and so beautifully written.
When asked last year if there was an audience Johnson had in mind for his work, he said he regrets not being perceived as he sees himself, a Christian writer. The crowd at the reading laughed; in the rough milieu of his novels, the only experience most of his characters have with a church is at an AA meeting, if they are lucky. But Johnson's concerns are deeply Christian and therefore extremely worldly, like Greene or Frederick Buechner, or better, Flannery O'Connor. They lift him beyond categorization. The process (or Progress) of a pilgrim moving through the fallen world is explored in Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), Johnson's fourth book, and in my opinion his best. Here the sacred and profane collide in a very disturbing allegory of purgatory, salvation, and hell on Earth. I know people who said this book made them physically ill. Here Johnson works with the fuel of Jesus' Son (completed at nearly the same time): the hysterical, rambling wonder of smart bar talk. It may be true that the best literature is being spoken aloud in the lounges of the world, but no one will ever read it. Johnson pulls priceless gems out of this quicksand.
It was a long five-year wait for 1997's Already Dead, a book that was so experimental it nearly dissolved its own boundaries as a freestanding work of art. Subtitled A California Gothic, the book takes its plot from a poem by Left Coast poet Bill Knott. Longtime fans called it a glorious mess, with its freaky backwoods Northern Cal topography staging a noir thriller that throws together New Age priestesses, hilariously bumbling hitmen, and the philosophically justified renunciation of loyalty and responsibility. Still, Already Dead proved both that Johnson could put out something that would never be called classic literature, and that his variety and wit were beyond the reach of almost any of his contemporaries.
Turning the famous Neil Young quote on its head, having found himself in the ditch, Johnson seems (at first) to have headed for the middle of the road with his latest novel. The narrator, Michael Reed, is of a type that has crowded American fiction of late--a middle-aged, white college professor, for Chrissakes, walking wounded four years after the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash. This ground has seemingly been covered from every angle, and the reader is forgiven for shuddering at the thought of going back in, even with Johnson's brilliance guiding the way. What usually would be pedestrian material for another writer of course has its traps in Johnson's world, and it is not long before this whole setup is blown apart, and the ordinariness of the scene becomes a launch pad for an illusion-shedding voyage into the spiritual dimensions of grief. The fruitcake selection of Iowa City in the '70s in Jesus' Son is brought on-campus and into the beginning of the '90s: A performance artist named Flower Cannon helps to lead the professor through his changes, while Reed's colleague, a West Indian economist-in-exile named Tiberius Soames, sidles charmingly off the edge of academia and into madness. When all this reaches the boiling point, we are in classic Johnson territory, and it is damn intense, as expected. But the novel is all beginning and end, with no middle. Johnson, like so few other authors, holds back, giving only a quick nod to his experience during those years as the Gulf War correspondent for Esquire, during which he published in that magazine a series of articles that a decade later stand out as a match for Orwell's coverage of the Spanish Civil War. It is unfortunate that this book should accompany the release of a new film based on Johnson's stories, because though better than most of what else will be published this year, on its own it will recruit no desperately eager readers to his other writings. Any of the other books alone are enough to hook you for life.
Far more exciting, and full of the old fire, is the play Hellhound on My Trail, published this spring in the boxed edition of the hip and eccentric literary journal McSweeney's. Three separate scenes, tangentially connected, feature different pairs of characters meeting and struggling to make sense of a paranoiacally rendered bureaucracy. All three scenes show Johnson's skill for infusing the events of the nightly news with a shadow world of psychological undercurrents in timeless, snappy dialogue that revels in the lunacy of the culture while recoiling from its wicked machinations. A Machiavellian exit interview of a whistle-blowing food inspector gives rise to a seemingly chance encounter at a convention hotel bar that, as it turns out, has been arranged by freelance operators lost in the elaborate schemes of their agency (I think), like Oswald in DeLillo's Libra. Never before has Johnson been so, well, Pynchonesque. Pynchon himself never pulled this stuff off with such fantastical comic deftness and the distinct ring of ordinary truth.
Spun off the second act is one man's confrontation with himself and a Koresh-like soldier of faith in an interstate motel room at the end of a four-day alcoholic blackout. The dialogue in this last scene sets fires all over the page and turns the outside world at crazy angles from within the room, like the cog of a carnival sit-and-spin. In the empty spaces between mass-media commercial savagery, shadowy political orthodoxies, and chemically amplified paranoia, Johnson generates the special visionary spark he has patented as his own--the spark that will keep you buying his books again and again, as you keep pushing them on to your friends. Anyone who can look forward to reading them all for the first time is to be envied.