I suppose it was envy that set me off in search of Denis Johnson’s notes. Or obsession, though it could be argued that one begets the other. I’d been enthralled by Johnson’s writing since I first encountered it in the spring of 2017, weeks after his death, when outlets like The New York Times and The New Republic ran elegies that described his prose as “hallucinatory” and “perverse and funny.” Curious about the man receiving such high praise, I read one book, and then another, and then another. Each book was imbued with such quiet care that, to quote a review Johnson himself once wrote of Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, “I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.”
There are plenty of authors who scribble with authority and panache. But never had I come across anyone so quietly prophetic, nor as assuredly empathetic, as Johnson. His writing dealt largely with people on the fringe—drifters and vagrants—but never were they outright tragic figures. Flawed, sure, but not felled. That may be owed to the fact that Johnson himself was once among their ranks. He realized his potential as an artist only after he’d beaten back the ghosts of squalor and addiction. Perhaps owing to this firsthand familiarity, his books have an effortless quality, almost as if he coughed them up. It’s a feeling not unlike listening to a great album or watching an athlete in their prime. Johnson was known, both in life and in death, as a kind of “writer’s writer,” though I think that honorific belies his broader appeal. Jonathan Franzen may have said the God he wants to believe in “has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's,” but loads of others surely would have said the same if they’d had the words. You don’t posthumously win the Library of Congress’ Prize for American Fiction if not.
So, when I heard from a friend one day last summer that, actually, a sizable trove of Johnson’s minutiae was housed at the University of Texas at Austin, about four miles from my house, it was a no-brainer: I had to go see for myself how the man’s brain worked.
His miscellany is housed at the Harry Ransom Center, a sprawling literary archive located inside a Brutalist building on the southern tip of UT’s campus. Johnson’s drafts and musings are held in what is essentially a filing system dedicated mostly to the Western canon. Norman Mailer is in there. Don DeLillo too. There’s even one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles. Yet, despite the center’s renowned collection, it was a surprisingly uncomplicated process to get my hands on Johnson’s papers: sign a few forms promising not to steal any of the materials and not to post photos of said materials on social media or stash any books or notepads in an allotted locker (lest you renege on your aforementioned promise and try to stuff some correspondence by DeLillo into the old moleskin), and you can pretty much walk right in. A thick hush hangs over the place, softening—or, to me at least, dulling—the senses.
But that was no matter: when the librarian carted over a shelf’s worth of legal-sized boxes, each of them full of manila folders dedicated to different projects—novels, stories, reportage—I felt a rush of elation. It wasn’t a sit-down dinner with the guy, but it was still a chance to look over his time-tested recipes.
They didn’t disappoint. I saw notes he’d written to himself in the margins of his drafts, scolding himself for repeating a word too often, or suggesting he trim a sentence. “Grainier took his horses and wagon” became “Grainier took his mares and his wagon.” (The latter appeared in its final form in his 2011 novella Train Dreams.) He dictated rough and almost ethereal outlines, trusting that he would, at some future date, marry ethos with plot. One musty looseleaf, a sheet of chicken scratch that would inform his 1997 novel Already Dead, explains that the story must reach its climax with “Bad guys heading for the monastery after Lost Coast—It was all weird now after the scene at lost coast—the feeling, etc., describe as they approach.” The curtain is drawn and we see the humble scaffolding for a scene that, in the book, reads as serpentine and surreal. Johnson knew his greatest strength was in creating mood; he only needed to dash off three overlapping circles to create Mickey Mouse.
The man drafted and re-drafted and re-drafted, and I spent hours playing voyeur to his process. I liked the experience so much that I went back a second time in the fall. And it was this next trip, when I would look more closely at the folders containing the dozens of sketches that would become Jesus' Son, the early-career short story collection for which he’s best known, that would send me down the rabbit hole and ultimately bring unexpected dimension to a person whom, in retrospect, I had probably flattened in my reverence.
Jesus’ Son was published in December 1992, but many of its stories were released in the months and years prior. The eleven pieces that constitute the book share locations (an Iowa dive bar called The Vine, for example), and a recalcitrant narrator named Fuckhead. There’s no plot per se; we mostly just hang around with Johnson’s cast of delinquents and addicts: people like Jack Hotel, who is on trial for armed robbery and takes his lunchtime recess at the bar sporting an “olive-green three-piece suit”; and Wayne, the industrious-if-unscrupulous friend of the narrator’s who hatches a copper wire robbery scheme. Maybe you’ve known people like them, or you’ve at least crossed paths. Johnson certainly did. Jesus’ Son is semi-autobiographical; Fuckhead is Johnson’s surrogate.
For Johnson, it was the discovery of this wonderful thing called rum at the age of fourteen that started a decade-plus-long habit of substance use, which continued even while he was a student at the venerated University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, wowing classmates and professors alike with his seemingly slapdash poetry. By the early 1970s Johnson had developed a heroin habit to go along with his alcoholism, and stints on the street and in a psych ward followed. He finally stopped using heroin in the mid-1970s, alcohol in 1978—around the time when he re-discovered Christianity—and published his first novel, Angels, a book about two forlorn drifters, in 1983. The book earned Johnson a reputation as the shiny new thing and gave him the vocal admiration of people like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. When Jesus’ Son was published in 1992, the rest of the world—or the book-loving world, anyway—got wise to the guy. The movie adaption of Jesus’ Son, released in 1999 and starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, certainly didn’t hurt his recognition.
Jesus’ Son’s rotating cast of characters, who flitter in and out between prison stints and drug-induced meditations, are not what you might call good Samaritans. They lie and cheat and chase cheap thrills. But there is—and I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this—a hint of redemption in Jesus’ Son. Whereas at the book’s start Fuckhead has an almost ecclesiastical respect for the hedonistic, by the end he is taking his first steps on a long road to sobriety.
In the final story of Jesus’ Son, an eighteen-page yarn called “Beverly Home,” Fuckhead is working at a hospital for the elderly and the infirm, people who, Johnson wrote, make “God look like a senseless maniac.” Fuckhead’s job is to create the titular facility’s newsletter (“just a few mimeographed pages issued twice a month”) and to otherwise act as a sort of in-house greeter, there to grasp a hand or squeeze a shoulder, simply because “they needed to be touched, and they didn't get much of that.” He is again surrounded by people who live in the world’s shadows, only this time it’s not by their own choosing.
“Beverly Home” ends on a sympathetic note for the people who roam the building’s halls and, though unspoken, for the scofflaws who may not live long enough to ever get there: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them,” Johnson wrote. “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Like us, he says, not like them. There’s an element of divine gratitude on display here: Fuckhead still counts himself among these zombie ranks, and he recognizes with wonderment the incredibly fine line between inmate and sentry.
And who knows if his temperance will last? Johnson won’t say whether there’s a relapse in store for our narrator; he leaves the reader to make that forecast.
Plopped in my chair at the UT archives, I rifled through Johnson’s notes for just about every story in Jesus’ Son. When I got to the folder on “Beverly Home” I found something that made my eyes twitch: a crumpled one-sheeter with the words “The Beverly Manor News” plastered across the top. Below, the text reads:
It's good to be back!
This is the first edition of the Beverly Manor News since Betty Crosson was activities director. Miriam wants to keep us informed, and we can all help her out by keeping our ears open and letting her in on the latest. Don’t be shy! Anything you enjoy hearing about is worth passing along.
The document goes on to highlight upcoming birthdays (“Isaac Hudson turned a whopping 97!”) and social functions (“Friday coffee hour is a great success”), and encourages attendance for an upcoming “Easter pageant for Beverly Manor residents.” After a few minutes I set aside the page and continued through the folder, where I came upon the umpteenth draft of “Beverly Home,” except here Johnson used a different title for the story: “Beverly Manor.”
I wondered: if Jesus’ Son is based to some extent on Johnson’s life—as indeed he’s indicated—was there a real Beverly Home? And was Johnson the in-house scribe?
I wasn’t exactly of a neutral mind here; I wanted this person, who writes sweetly about celebrations and social functions, to be Johnson. I wanted assurance that, like his conduit Fuckhead, Johnson cared about the people who hovered in the caverns as he climbed his way out of rock bottom. I longed to know that he wasn’t just tapping their sorrows for his art.
I spent the next several weeks trying to solve this puzzle of my own creation.
I couldn’t immediately date the newsletter, but given its placement in the Jesus’ Son collection, I assumed it was at least as old as the rest of the story drafts, which meant the 1980s, maybe the 1970s. In any case, it seemed safe to assume anybody whose name appeared in the newsletter had been dead for quite some time. (Remember: Isaac Hudson was turning a whopping 97!) Nonetheless, I searched every name that appeared, all the birthday celebrants and newcomers (the latter of whom occupied a small section of the page). Scanning the obituaries, I noted any mention of children and grandchildren. But none of the several dozen or so calls I made to those strangers were ever returned. Not hard to imagine why a query like “I’m wondering if your grandfather died in a place called Beverly Manor sometime in the last forty years” proved fruitless.
I moved on to the line about the Easter pageant, which the newsletter said was being put on by “a group from the Southern Baptists church in Tollson.” There is no town, as far as I can tell, called Tollson, but there is a Tolleson, Arizona, a town of 7,300 just outside of Phoenix. Johnson lived in Phoenix for a while in the 1970s, near a bar—the inauspiciously named Incognito Lounge—that would prove the namesake for one of his best-known poetry collections. If the region served as the backdrop for some of Johnson’s lower moments, it also witnessed his rebirth: Johnson only began his sobriety in earnest when he moved in with his parents at their home in Scottsdale in 1978. OK, I thought, we’ve got a church group from Tolleson coming to a place presumably not too far away, meaning the place is in Arizona, and we know Denis lived in Arizona. Not exactly ace detective work, but it was something.
I tried calling around to all the Southern Baptist churches in the region, as well as some of the larger ecumenical networks, asking always whether anyone might have records of involvement with Beverly Manor. Unfortunately, those queries all came up short. I contacted the county assessor’s office, the recorder’s office, and a few other state agencies. The assessor’s office provided the most interesting lead: county property records that show a small housing development in Phoenix called “Beverly Manor Estates.” I found a few realtors selling houses in the development, but nobody had any idea what I was talking about when I asked, “So, do you think maybe the estates are built on the ruins of an old seniors center?”
For expediency’s sake, let’s just say I pursued every other avenue I could think of, but nothing yielded answers. Fearing failure, I rang up a few people to whom Denis might have given a direct account.
Despite their reputation as hermits and misanthropes, writers are a chatty bunch, and so, apparently, are their friends. It’s not that I was expecting to be stonewalled by anyone in his orbit (though I was told early that Johnson’s widow, Cindy, didn’t wish to speak with reporters); I just imagined a frostiness, even suspicion, for someone looking to add a biographical notation to a collection of stories that have already seen their fair share of notations (most recently with Ted Geltner’s masterful piece in The New Yorker). But what I found was a willing and generous bunch, eager to help even if they couldn’t bring me to a resolution.
“That I don't know,” said the painter Sam Messer, when I asked whether his late friend Denis Johnson ever wrote a Beverly Manor bulletin. “I just know that what he wrote happened because Denis talked to me years later about still feeling guilty about looking in the window.”
About that window: in “Beverly Home,” the narrator at one point confesses to peeping on a woman, a Mennonite (he thinks) who sings “with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway” in the shower. I shudder to think of Johnson doing something so invasive, so morally wrong. There’s a small comfort in knowing that Johnson regretted that violation and, I hope, learned from it. But what about the person whose privacy he violated? Was she ever aware of the intrusion? We’ll never know. All I can say is that the point of Jesus’ Son was that people can err and course correct and err again, that the arcs of our lives are not linear. According to those who knew him, Johnson tried to keep the erring to a minimum once he did get sober.
In the course of my search for an answer, I came to learn a number of other interesting truths about Johnson, from people who knew him and loved him. From Messer, I learned that Johnson owned a pickup truck that he had outfitted with a camper, inside of which he kept a typewriter and a filing cabinet. When loaning Messer the truck sometime in 1988, Johnson advised his friend that, should anything happen on the road, just look under the folder marked A, for answer. Sure enough, Messer blew out a tire while driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in California. “I went into the back of the camper and I pulled out the A folder, and it was a wad of cash,” Messer said. “I was able to get a new tire.”
Here’s another nugget: according to former Paris Review editor James Linville, Johnson’s answering machine message barked, “Leave a message, but if you’re calling from Hollywood, go away.” (He apparently had a change of heart in the end.)
Alan Soldofsky, a classmate of Johnson’s at the University of Iowa, recalled bumping into his friend, now strung out and homeless in Berkeley, while working for a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. “When I saw him, you know, I wanted to feed him or do something for him,” Soldofsky said. “He was really embarrassed to see me in the state that he was. He was cordial but he didn't want any charity. And he moved his panhandling spot.”
That incarnation of Johnson is much different from the one who, many years and one spiritual rebirth later, promised Soldofsky he would pray for his wife after she’d received a cancer diagnosis. “Denis literally said, ‘I'll go to church and pray for her,’” Soldofsky told me. “My wife survived. I don't know if there was anything to do with Denis's intercession, but we're grateful. But he really wasn't—” here Soldofsky paused to collect his thoughts. “He had a belief system that was very compelling.”
If there is a theme to emerge from these scattershot dialogues, it is that Johnson possessed an inviolable conviction. He first focused that dogma on drugs, then on writing. Arthur Bradford, a writer and student during one of Johnson’s occasional visiting professorships at the University of Texas, once asked whether there was any external motivation to those youthful exploits: if, deep down, Johnson knew he was collecting experiences that he could later mine for his creative life. “And he said no, at that time he was just trying to exist.”
I could have stopped my little project there. It didn’t matter much whether Johnson wrote the bulletin or where he worked or when he lived in Arizona. The unadulterated truth is that he toiled for years in the nadir of his own suffering, and he spent the rest of his life in service to the people and places of those years.
But alas, the narrative offered a proper coda. I would finally learn the truth a few weeks later, after I’d given up hope of ever finding a smoking gun. It was late October when I spoke with Elizabeth Cuthrell, who wrote and produced the screenplay for the film adaptation of Jesus' Son. Johnson was heavily involved in the movie, consulting on the script and the locations, even appearing in a scene as a character who enters a hospital to treat a knife that’s been lodged into his right eye socket. “My recollection is that he did work at Beverly Manor and that he did write the newsletter,” Cuthrell said. “I think he worked as an orderly there. He wrote the newsletter but I think he also did interact with the patients on some level.”
Well, I had an answer, though by then I must admit I was equally interested—if not more—in the stories of Johnson I came by along the way. The guy who kept cash in a filing cabinet, who prayed fervently for his loved ones, who got a little better every day until he climbed out of the hole and yet remained, at his core, a weirdo.
That latter part is what still resonates with so many. Certainly, for me. I wouldn’t have combed through his rolodex and run the gamut on Arizona's Southern Baptist network if not.