Denis Johnson and revision
At the beginning of January, I received an unexpected message from Frank Reiss, owner of A Cappella Books here in Atlanta. He asked if I might be willing to help out with an upcoming release party for Denis Johnson’s last book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. A collection of admirers would be reading in tribute from his stories. He’d already roped in a handful of others. I told him I was flattered to be included.
“Do you have something in particular you’d like to read from?” he asked.
Several years ago, I was lying in bed unable to sleep and watching a video of a Denis Johnson reading on my laptop. The woman I was dating had gone to Argentina and left me alone in her house with her dog for a couple of months. I spent a lot of sleepless hours that summer in bed listening to interviews with writers trying to figure out why I couldn’t write a good story. The Johnson clip had been recorded at Texas State University, where he taught, in 2007. This was in the old, bad days of online video. The frame that loaded on my screen was the size of a driver’s license, all pixels, awful looking, Denis Johnson built from Legos.
At the beginning, the shot is wide, a drop-ceiling, fluorescent-lit room with a simple podium and about a dozen people gathered in front. It seems like one of those university readings that are technically open to the public, but that only means a graduate student put a poster up in a hallway. I mostly didn’t watch. I just lay there in bed, looking up at the ceiling, and listened.
As I remember it, when Johnson starts speaking to the room it seems like he knows most of them, they’re probably all students in his workshop. He keeps interrupting whatever script he had prepared to speak casually, directly. He reads “The Other Man,” but he doesn’t stop interrupting himself. He points out one sentence and says something like, “I’ve taught you better than that, right?”
After that he reads “Emergency.” Maybe you remember how it goes: the narrator and an orderly steal some drugs and finish their shift at the hospital. They go to a graveyard that turns out to be a drive-in. They run over a pregnant rabbit, delude themselves to believe they can save the rabbit’s kits, and kill those, too. Both characters have a lot of misunderstandings, about the world and about themselves. They can hardly tell what is real and what isn’t. Near the end, they pick up a hitchhiker named Hardee who is trying to dodge the draft and make it to Canada.
In the video, Johnson interrupts the story around when the hitchhiker shows. He starts talking about giving a different reading, some years earlier. Afterward at the signing table, a guy walked up and said, “Do you remember me? I’m Hardee.” It took a second for Johnson to remember, but then he realized, this was the guy, the hitchhiker he’d picked up years ago. There at the signing table, Hardee handed him a letter that explained what had happened in his life after that night. Johnson reads the letter to the crowd at Texas State and then returns to the original story and finishes reading that.
At least, I thought it was a letter. It could have been something else, a story or a poem. What I’ve been describing to you is a memory of listening to a video years ago, not the video itself. The truth is I was falling asleep while I was listening and the next morning I couldn’t remember it exactly. I wasn’t sure. What I remember is the hitchhiker from “Emergency” had shown up again, years later after he’d been worked into a story, and handed the author a piece of paper. Johnson read from the paper that night, proof that the hitchhiker from “Emergency” was real.
I went home that night and tried to watch the video again but Front Porch Journal, the literary magazine that had uploaded the video, had redesigned their website and I couldn’t find it. It had disappeared.
This went on for some time. I’d tell someone this tall tale about the hitchhiker from “Emergency” and then try in vain to find the clip, to see if the story I remembered hearing was real at all, if it had ever even happened or if it had just been something I’d made up halfway from a dream. One night, I wrote a message to the literary journal asking if they could find the Denis Johnson video, if it was broken or lost or something. Nobody ever wrote back.
A couple of months ago, I had drinks with a buddy, another writer, and we talked about Johnson and I went home looking for that video yet again, but this time I found it. It was resurrected somehow or maybe it had never gone away in the first place. I don’t know what happened. I pressed play. I held my breath for a couple of moments, excited, until I realized that the video didn’t have any sound. It was a fifty-one-minute silent video, a blurry frame of Johnson standing at a podium with some pages in his hand.
When Frank emailed me in January to ask what I might read for the book party, the answer seemed obvious to me. I had to read the hitchhiker’s letter. I would have to find the video. I sent another email to the Front Porch Journal, but again no one answered. Eventually I realized all of the names on the journal’s masthead were old graduate students who weren’t graduate students anymore and all of the emails were generic: “fiction at front porch journal dot com,” “pr at front porch journal dot com,” “blog at front porch journal dot com.” My emails were just going to into forgotten folders that nobody read.
Finally, I tracked down Tom Grimes, the novelist who ran the writing program at Texas State, through his personal website and made it sound like I had a very official question about “the Front Porch Journal archives.” He put me in touch with Eric Blankenburg, who Grimes said was in charge of the Lindsey Video Archives of Front Porch Journal. I explained the problem as briefly as I could and then waited. He did not write back that day or the next. I began to suspect he never would.
Over the years, I have sometimes considered the disappearance of the video to be part of a conspiracy. Maybe Johnson didn’t want this version of the story circulating too widely, he just meant to tell it to the dozen graduate students he was there with that night. Maybe, I imagined, he had the video taken down in secret by a willing accomplice with access to the archives. Or, considering the silent reappearance, maybe his agent invoked some kind of copyright clause so that the university owned the visual aspects of video but that he possessed the intellectual property in the video’s audio. And there was still the other possibility, that I had invented the whole thing.
But Blankenburg did email me back, apologizing for the delay and offering an explanation for what happened: “Long story short, about a year ago, we underwent an upgrade to the video library archives and not all of them have been upgraded yet (the Johnson videos hadn’t been yet).” It is a big, impressive archive, which explains why it might take some time to do that. Larry McMurtry, Leslie Jamison, James Dickey, Claudia Rankine, Jean Valentine, Barry Hannah: They are all there reading their stories or poems or whatever, explaining how they managed to write what it was they wrote.
As for the videos of Denis Johnson, Blankenburg added, “I was able to find the old disks and get them up online for viewers.” He included several links, one of which he said was the video I had referenced. I clicked, waited a few seconds for the video load, and watched Denis Johnson in a Hawaiian shirt reading from what he calls “a novel I’ve been working on for a long time.” It’s Tree of Smoke. This wasn’t the video that I remembered at all.
A few days before the reading here in Atlanta, Blankenburg wrote me back again and said he’d uploaded another disk. It was the video I’d been trying to watch again for years. It looks mostly as I recalled it—a university room with a small crowd—though the quality of the clip has been much improved. Johnson is even funnier and more candid than I had remembered. He trips over his words. He jokes about it. When he interrupts “The Other Man” to point out a detail that doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t say, “I’ve taught you better than that,” but something even better: “I’m no longer a student, see. I’m a teacher now. I can write whatever the hell I want.”
And when he interrupts “Emergency” to tell the story of Hardee, the hitchhiker, he explains a detail that I’d forgotten. Hardee had shown up uninvited on Johnson’s front porch in Iowa City one morning and that Johnson had let him move in, just the way the narrator says he knows him in the story. Johnson tells a number of stories about the house they lived in together: that it was condemned, that he didn’t own shoes even though he was teaching graduate seminars, that the guys who lived below them were scary and rough. He tells about how one of those neighbors got stabbed in his chest with an ice pick and spent the whole night trying to lay still in a hospital bed. The guy sounds a lot like the patient in “Emergency” who shows up with a knife in his eye.
Johnson doesn’t read a letter from Hardee in the video. He reads a poem that Hardee wrote for him, titled “Dennis on Iowa Avenue.” Apparently, Hardee didn’t know how to spell Johnson’s name. The poem is fairly long and it isn’t particularly good but that doesn’t seem to matter. What seems to matter in the moment Johnson reads this to the crowd is that the poem is real.
“Emergency” is a story about misunderstandings, about the brief moments in our lives when our delusions part like clouds in the sky and we have the chance to see the world for what it is. Addicts tend to call this a moment of clarity. In a story full of these moments, Johnson interrupts himself to add one more, the moment when the hitchhiker from “Emergency” walked up to his signing table, years after the story had ended, and changed his ending. If we are to believe Johnson, to take him at his word, he didn’t write this last revision of the story. Hardee wrote it for him.
Johnson tells us just a little of what happened to Hardee in the intervening years, including one detail that I had mistakenly remembered as part of a letter that never existed: Hardee had gone to jail for a year for making counterfeit money on a Xerox machine. For attempting to pass off something fake as real. Johnson smiles, laughs like he can hardly believe it, like maybe we shouldn’t even believe what he’s telling us. But he reminds us that we should. He says, “The world is full of these people.”
The day of the book party, I spent a few minutes transcribing Hardee’s poem from the video, typing it out line by line, trying to figure out the cadence, and trying to figure out how I might explain all of this—my relationship to it over the years—in front of a microphone in a few minutes.
As it turned out, there was no reason to trouble over any of it. A small snow storm was headed for Georgia that night. For the next few days the streets would be frozen; nowhere to go, I would spend them mostly lying around, reading the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. The governor would declare a state of emergency. Frank had to cancel the reading a few hours before it was set to begin.
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