My Dinner with Denis Johnson
Rick Bass Cooks Dinner for His Neighbor and Talks About Writing
I had not expected one of the most reclusive of my influences to be the most welcoming. But perhaps because we have been such close neighbors for decades without bumping into each other, with just one long mountain range separating his valley from mine, Denis Johnson agreed to a visit. I would go to cook for Denis and his wife, Cindy, with the fiction writer Molly Antopol, a mutual fan of Denis’s work whom I’d met at Stanford, where she was teaching, and who was mere months away from the publication of her debut, a remarkable collection of stories called The UnAmericans that would go on to be long-listed for the National Book Award.
“We’ll put the big pots on,” Denis wrote back to my proposition. “We’ll cook with the big spoons.” And the closer we got to the visit, the more excited Denis became about the meal. He called one day to say he’d already thought of what my first sentence should be: “When I arrived,” he dictated, “the Johnsons were naked.”
A high mountain wall, sharp and thin as a machete, separates the green forested bowl of Denis’s valley from mine. Bears cross back and forth over this mountain, as do moose, even the enigmatic and exceptionally rare woodland caribou, looking like a reindeer in a children’s Christmas story. No direct roads conjoin the two kingdoms. It is a sign of strength, I believe, that in these isolated valleys nature is free to go about its changes in the manner and at the pace it sees fit. Fires, blizzards, floods, and the four seasons, again and again. There just aren’t a lot of people to muck things up.
With both of my daughters off at college now, with Elizabeth gone too, the empty nest is even emptier. The house is spacious without them, echoing with their ghosts. It feels like a long time since there’s been anyone else in it, though really it’s been only a little over a month since I dropped Lowry off in Wisconsin for the semester. I wake up each morning in the empty house and sweep the bare wooden floors in the autumn light, watch the alder leaves browning and detaching from their branches one by one: silver-coated with frost, like the marsh itself at daylight, glistening and steaming in the new sun, with the air so still that, when sitting on the porch with my bird dog, Callie, a German short-haired pointer, I can hear each slow-spinning leaf crash-land, quietly, onto the others already beneath it.
What is my life to become? I ask myself this at some point in almost every day now. To live without the security, or perceived security, of love can be like trying to sleep in the cold without a blanket. You can fall asleep, but at some point you’re going to wake up and realize you are cold.
Molly has come up from California to make the trip over to Denis’s with me. Given the usual emptiness and quiet of the big house, it’s strange, but not unpleasant, to hear her voice today, speaking to Callie with great animation and delight. In the morning I drive her around to some of the valley’s highlights—old logging roads to hike, waterfalls, an overview from the high country. When we return to the house we cook elk burgers on the grill, and pass the time in conversation. Molly and her husband want to start a family someday—she’s in her early thirties—and even though to her it seems still hypothetical, I can see that she has already stepped on a boat that has separated itself from the shore.
Slowly, we begin preparing. It’s great not to be in a rush, and to be working in one’s own kitchen. To be familiar with the location of everything, and with the space between things. To fit that space. Eventually, after preparing what we can ahead of time, we begin packing the car: baking sheets wrapped in foil to aid in kitchen clean-up; the potatoes and jalapeños sliced for the gratin; the ice chest loaded with tuna, cream, white wine, butter, and packed with ice. The pistachios cracked and chopped; and garlic, which a chef should never leave home without. Yaak Valley morels soaked and hydrated, then blotted dry, ready to be sautéed for appetizers. The cast-iron skillet.
It’s so leisurely, spending the day getting ready, sitting on the porch with Callie. Time for a cocktail. Three-thirty, four o’clock, and finally, time to wander on, though we have a free hour, since northern Idaho—despite being only 30 miles away—is on Pacific rather than Mountain time. It’s a two-hour drive, down out of my valley, along the Kootenai River, then north again, back up into Denis’s valley, following an intricate system of logging roads more washboarded and torturous than my own. The glass casserole dishes and metal pots and pans jangle and clatter rhythmically, and the dust of autumn plumes. Our teeth rattle, the windows are down, music’s playing.
“When a soul that has spent so long in conflict with itself, hostage to the mental war of chemical disarray, rights itself and finds centerstream, the peace, while not cloying, is unmistakable.”
When we arrive, the Johnsons, alas, are clothed. But friendly, as delighted to see us as if we were lost family, or travelers whose passage has covered arduous terrain, and whose arrival they have long been awaiting.
What do I notice about Denis immediately? His bigness of spirit, his joy, his unmedicated ebullience. His happiness.
The medicated violence, exuberance, wisdom, compassion, and turmoil of his classic works, such as his debut novel, Angels, and the story collection Jesus’ Son, are legendary. Those masterpieces emerged after his days of hard living, hard partying. But those days of plummeting are gone, decades in the past. Denis is sober and clean. And the older he gets, the better he gets. Witness the National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke, in 2007, and the novella Train Dreams, a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2011. His prose is often lean, sizzling like a wire stripped of its protective coating. His eye, his attention to the perfect and peripheral detail, strikes me as that of an extremely wise old animal, one that might have been wounded in the past, but survived the wounding, and has gone on to prosper, yet carries the wisdom of how that wound came to pass, and sees its shadow at the edges, knowing to keep its distance, and—if others care—to pass on a warning.
Something I want to ask him, but which I don’t dare: he’s been divorced twice. Did he give up hope? What was it like when he met Cindy? What does one do with scar tissue? I wish I had asked him. Instead, I just observe his deep, long happiness with Cindy. It is too intimate, and my nerve fails me, which I now regret.
They’ve been here in these woods for 15-plus years. “I want you to write,” Cindy tells Denis, later that evening. “I want to help support you to do what you do best, write.”
When a soul that has spent so long in conflict with itself, hostage to the mental war of chemical disarray, rights itself and finds centerstream, the peace, while not cloying, is unmistakable. Yet Denis also still possesses, 30 years later, the aura of the shipwrecked, the long-marooned, who has been rescued—who has rescued himself, and who sees now the world in its full and sharp beauty, while the rest of us, jaded, wander through its columns of gold with our heads cast down.
There’s still a bit of daylight left. It’s the last hour of sun, the sky still blue, the leaves of the aspen and cottonwood trees at their richest, most buttery yellow. Denis is eager to get out into that last and best light, and to show us their forest, and their meadows, eager for us to walk through the yellow sun of that late autumn light, cleaving it as one would cleave a lake while swimming. He embraces us, ushers us in, helping with the pans and dishes.
The view from their cabin is mythic. Looking south, down into the narrow, deeply forested valley, is like peering at an illustration in an old Bible—one of my ideas of heaven, with that light starting to lie flat across the land and the shadows lengthening gigantically and the spines of the mountains snow-dusted. With a great and boyish pride, Denis shows us his generator and battery and solar panel setup, an intricate system so like my own. So many of my heroes are hermits, to the point where they remove themselves so far from society and civilization that not even the curls and tendrils of electricity can reach them. Denis takes us on a walk then, down the hill below their house and through a small dark forest, where he points out an old clubhouse he built for his nieces and nephews.
“I had this gold coin from the Yukon,” he says, “and I offered it to any of them who could stay out in the woods all night. I’d send them out there with just a sleeping bag and flashlight and a walkie-talkie to call the house if they got scared.”
No one ever won the gold coin, he tells us, because he’d always go out there and stomp around and make monster noises. Finally, however, his 13-year-old niece, Caitlin, made it all the way through. Denis stomped and roared, but she hung in there. What Caitlin had done, it turned out, was to throw the flashlight and walkie-talkie far enough away that she couldn’t reach them. Then she burrowed down into her mummy bag and went to sleep.
Denis built the clubhouse on the spot where she prevailed, named it Caitlin’s Cabin. He said it was an important rite of passage, her down there “dreaming some virgin dreams.”
“I like how he has taken what he needs from the world and then retreated to the place where he—and, therefore, not surprisingly, his work—is most powerful. He seems perfectly balanced.”
There’s something so familiar here, where I can smell almost everything, just as I can in my own forest. Crimson-berried kinnikinnick, summer-dried lupine, sun-brittle pine. It’s as if I can smell each individual needle on the forest floor, can smell the soft soil compressing beneath our footfalls and then releasing tiny currents of updraft as we walk through this forest separated from mine by only the one high mountain wall.
I like how Denis calls me “Brother.” I like how he has taken what he needs from the world and then retreated to the place where he—and, therefore, not surprisingly, his work—is most powerful. He seems perfectly balanced. I am hiding my own freefall from him, and I watch him carefully, breathe the air he is exhaling. I walk alongside him like a peer but I do not feel like a peer, I feel like a wounded comrade who is hiding his wounds and is not calling out for help. Who is pretending all is well.
We emerge into a meadow then, and it is not the shimmering flutters of the gold-leafed aspen at meadow’s edge that get our attention, or even the meadow itself, but instead, the immense abstract sculptures scattered throughout it like the remnants of a previous civilization.
Hippies, I think.
The sculptures have the appearance of giant rocket ships, brightly painted concrete husks 20 or 30 feet high. Some are still fully upright, like missiles growing from the soil, while others are tipped on their sides, or as if they have all crashed into this one meadow. A repository for the weird.
“They were here when we bought it,” Denis explains. “The guy before me was an artist.”
We wind our way through the meadow, viewing the funky tilted monstrosities, marveling at the strangeness of the human brain. Out here so far from any town, or even any other humans, they seem somehow like a cry for help. Though who would ever be wandering this way? With the sun down behind the high wall of the mountains and the light turning sepia, we walk in the new chill of the evening back up the old logging road to their house on the hill, and that view: the seemingly unending blue waves of the mountains, their folds soft against the approaching darkness.
Along the lane, we talk about writing a little bit, with Molly asking specific questions. Denis, while allowing he doesn’t much care to think about such things, answers with intelligence and gentle nods of assent, or wry silences if he feels otherwise. Does a story need to be moral? A look, almost perplexed, off into the woods, but with a small sweet smile; almost a shake of the head, which I interpret to mean, “I don’t think about any of that kind of stuff.” Can writing make someone a better person? Pause. He starts to speak, then smiles again and points out a late-season bloom of bellflower. Such gentle tact: beauty, or wreckage? Please, he seems to be saying, consider the former; there is such lesser talent in identifying the latter!
No small number of my heroes have wiped out and hit rock bottom in long-ago days, or at least damaged themselves on the shoals. Denis, it would seem, Barry Hannah, certainly. Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, the painter Russell Chatham. Is this the same percentage of wipeouts as exist in the general population? I don’t know. More germane to my journey, and that of my writers, is that there are plenty who did not; who were not as tortured, who somehow moved ahead without the vertiginous amplitudes of bipolarity, addiction, self-medication, despair.
We talk a little more about writing, but do so before the last light fades, which feels healthy. For me, if one is to get into the earnestness and dread that can come from too considered an analysis of why literature works, it is best done in the light of day. The life of the mind is, after all, for better or worse, a morass of the abstract. Why further envelop it in the unseeingness of nighttime?
Watching my mentors, coupled with my own experience, has led me to suspect that when it comes to writing, one of the key areas for improvement over the long run of a life is not so much about bearing down harder on the nouns and verbs as it is about learning how to take care of one’s mind. How to let the brain properly cool down, after asking so much of it. The smithy of the soul. I’m referring here to “James Joyce’s Refrigerator,” the great New Yorker cartoon by David Jacobson, which showed the great bearded poet perusing a scrap of paper attached to his refrigerator, a shopping list, which read:
1. Call Bank
2. Dry Cleaner
3. Forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
4. Call mom
I remember hearing a story about how when Denis was teaching in Austin, his front pants pockets were always filled with dollar bills. Denis explained to a new friend that they were going to have to drink a lot of coffee in Austin, because he had about 300 one-dollar bills that he needed to get rid of, stuffed in his pants pockets. When he had lived in San Francisco, he had always carried around a similar stash, so that whenever a homeless person asked for money for coffee, he could help them out. But in Austin, it turned out, he never came across someone asking for help. Still, he told his friend, he wanted to be ready.
“I didn’t want to risk being ungracious,” he said. “So you and I may need to drink about 150 cups of coffee.”
Denis is talking about contemporary editors—how he’s noticed a tendency in the crop of twenty-somethings to try to take out whatever the one most weird thing is in any of his stories.
Molly and I are surprised, because in addition to that component often being one of the strengths and surprises in Denis’s stories, it would seem that a youthful editor would embrace this weirdness.
“I am surprised. Because I knew Denis to be a genius with his sentences and perceptions, I imagined he might not be wise that way with the rest of his life, and with the allocations of his heart.”
“But if I pull out the most weird,” Denis says of some of the young editors, “the next-craziest thing steps up to become the most weird, and then they’re going to want to take that out. And so on.”
Even heroes have heroes, of course, and our talk turns to Raymond Carver, and the business of how much a writer allows him- or herself to be edited: when to agree, when to disagree. Carver, of course, was famously and thoroughly edited by Gordon Lish. Although Denis’s work is popular in Europe in its own right, he tells us about being at a literary festival in Croatia where all anyone wanted to talk to him about was his friendship with Raymond Carver. Denis says he finally had to go into the bathroom to try to get away from them asking him about Carver, Carver, Carver, but that even there, they kept coming after him.
Two things a reader might not know about Denis: he can remember names, even people he met once 50 years ago. When I tell him my younger daughter’s name is Lowry, he snaps his fingers and says, “I won’t forget that. I met a fellow, Bill Lowry, in the 1960s, down in Arizona.”
And this: he’s violently allergic to shellfish. “Anything with an exoskeleton,” he says. “One kernel, and I blow up.”
Molly and I do a mental scan of the menu, but he says it doesn’t matter, and that he didn’t tell us on purpose—that he never does. “I’m into the ceremony,” he says. “Whatever people want to fix for me is good enough.”
When we return from our walkabout to their cabin, we visit like the neighbors we are, while Molly and I go through our paces, relaxed, prepared, confident, happy: heating butter, coating the salmon with the pistachio. Blending the triple-chocolate Texas sheet-cake batter, greasing the pan. Placing the gratin casserole dish in the preheated oven and relaxing as the fragrance of jalapeño begins to fill the cabin. Autumn.
When we are done, and begin serving, the food is knockout perfect. The slab of salmon gleams with its green-crisped pistachio crust, looking so over-the-top that when it comes out of the oven there are gasps. My old favorite, the comfort food of a gratin, is extraordinarily beautiful, perfectly browned, and more fragrant than usual. The twice-baked sheet cake finishes off the meal in style as well as substance. And though I have never before met Denis—my woods neighbor!—I am suffused with the sense that he is my friend. It feels comfortable being over here on the other side of the mountain, like I’m already home.
The talk moves to the difference between “hero” and “mentor.” You might admire a hero, we decide, for the path they took or blazed, and for the work they did, whereas a mentor is someone who teaches you, and from whom you learn directly. “I guess Chekhov was my mentor,” Denis says. As he was to
Carver as well, and to so many others.
When at last we are leaving, Denis—the hermit, the recluse—insists we should do this again.
It is bittersweet to me to see his great contentment: with the meal, with his house, with where he lives, with his partner, with the person he has become and the person he left behind, and with the work behind him, and the work—tomorrow morning’s—ahead of him. He came through mayhem and survived it, with his core values intact. He began taking care of himself, and then, on a roll, taking care of others, with his great generosity of spirit.
If there was anything I could have done in my marriage, I would have. Anything. But doesn’t that sound trite? Sometimes, at dusk, it’s a thing almost like panic. I have wrecked my life. Did I mistake happiness for love? Am I capable of it? And is writing itself a form of running? Of manipulating a thing from the way it is into the way one wants it to be? And if so, what are the consequences of investing in such an alternate reality day after day, as if building up a fortress against the real world, stone by stone?
Terrible thoughts. I gaze upon Denis and Cindy’s happiness with the hunger of a jungle explorer witnessing something he has heard of, and read about, but does not fully understand.
Molly and I load all our pots and pans into the Subaru and go rattling down the hill, lids and jars jangling louder than ever, the lone beam of my one working headlamp lighting the lane before us, down and out of the woods in which, behind the dense wall of trees, strange rocket ships rest, waiting.
I am surprised. Because I knew Denis to be a genius with his sentences and perceptions, I imagined he might not be wise that way with the rest of his life, and with the allocations of his heart. But as with the best of meals, we were fed what we needed, and strengthened.
Two years later, he will be gone: whisked, lost to a fast-moving liver cancer. Now, leaning forward into the wind, we must carry his smile and the books he handed off before he went, like the fire in the horn.
I remember the time he challenged all poetry students in the Northwest to a slam at the Home Bar in Troy, Montana. There’d been a movie being filmed near there, Denis had been hanging out with the stuntmen, and one of them had given him an asbestos glove. For his reading, Denis donned the glove, lit his book aflame, held it up and began reading from it, his arm and hand a burning torch.
For a man with a yard full of rocket ships, how, really, could it have been any other way?
From The Traveling Feast. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Rick Bass.