Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.
I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.
I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”
Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”
The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.
If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.
Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.
When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.
Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.
I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.
I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.
Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting.
Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.