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Poet of the Fallen World 

How an S.F. theater troupe helped turn a reclusive novelist into a full-fledged playwright

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
"I'm kinda like Ozzy Osbourne," says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. "My wife was just telling me that."

He means he's disorganized. Fourteen years of substance abuse may have affected the writer's mind, so he relies, like Ozzy, on a practical wife to keep him grounded. "Cindy handles all the finances," Johnson says. "That's crucial." Last December, for example, he went with her to cash one of his own royalty checks at the bank. "She showed the lady some ID, and I said, 'Shouldn't I show her my ID?' And she said, 'You don't have an account here.'"

Johnson looks nothing like Ozzy Osbourne. He's a gentle, affable, easy-smiling man with a thickening middle and a beard. He dresses, by his own admission, like "someone from a TV news team" -- plain shirts, worn jeans, and running shoes. He's open, self-deprecating, and kind. Not much in his manner has the edginess of Fuckhead, the semi-autobiographical wandering junkie in Jesus' Son, which more than any other book has made Johnson a famous author. That collection of grim, brief stories about addicted drifters in the '70s won him a hip cult following after it was published in 1992; more fans followed when it became a successful indie film in 2000 (starring Billy Crudup). It also led, not quite indirectly, to his new career as a playwright -- a career launched, in large part, by the Mission District theater troupe Campo Santo.

"He's so naked and honest," says Sean San José, a fan of Johnson and a Campo Santo actor performing in his latest play, Soul of a Whore, which opens at Intersection for the Arts this week. "That's the great thing about Denis and any of the good writers, is that you feel the big punch in your stomach when you read 'em."

Three and a half years ago, Campo Santo staged two stories from Jesus' Son, in collaboration with another company called Word for Word. The show was not only a local hit, but also a revelation for Johnson, who flew out to San Francisco from Idaho, where he lives half the year (the other half in Arizona), to watch it. He couldn't get over the fact that all these people had put in all this work to perform the stories exactly as he'd written them. "To be so alone [as a writer], working with these characters and what they say, and then to come and see these people who are devoting even more energy, actually, to the process -- it's like finding your tribe," says Johnson. "I thought I was the only one on the planet who felt these characters were important."

Campo Santo has world-premiered two of his plays since then, and on Feb. 20 the company world-premieres Soul of a Whore, which rounds out Johnson's triptych about the fucked-up Cassandra family. Soul of a Whore is about capital punishment; a Cassandra woman sits on death row for killing her infant daughter. But the play teems with colorful images and people: It detours through a Greyhound-station demimonde of ex-cons, prophesying demons, a hypocritical preacher, a lovely Texan stripper, and a cross-toting Cassandra son before it arrives at any discussion of the electric chair.

Johnson fans will recognize that cast of characters: Prostitutes and drunkards and petty criminals populate his tales the way they populate the songs of Johnny Cash. Johnson writes with relish about sinners. He still goes to support-group meetings for recovering addicts, and he never gets tired of hearing people's stories. "I feel very privileged to hear how somebody used to run around stickin' people up and stealing cars, and now they're gettin' their life back together," he says. "I was in one [group] just a few days ago, and there was this girl who had been clean and sober for 17 days. She got a check for $300, and she told us everything she did with the check -- she paid her dad back a hundred dollars, she paid some bills, and then she sent $25 to a cancer hospital for children. I was just so amazed. It was such a beautiful thing. And she'd formerly been a whore. I just love the stories. The stories of the fallen world, they excite us. That's the interesting stuff."

Playwriting is only the most recent phase in Johnson's long, shape-shifting career. He started as a poet in 1969, with a collection called The Man Among the Seals. He was 20 and still enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he took classes from Raymond Carver. At 21 he entered his first psych ward for alcohol addiction. Seven or eight years of drug abuse followed -- "heroin, alcohol, grass, and any pills that came my way," he says -- along with two periods of aimless, and sometimes homeless, wandering. The stories in Jesus' Son grew out of these stints as a stray.

While he struggled to get sober in 1978, Johnson says, he had "a strong experience of the presence of God" in Phoenix. The epiphany is still hard for him to explain, beyond a disavowal ("There was no talking") and a vague description of color ("It was kind of -- blue"). But a number of passages in Jesus' Son seem to derive from it, like this description by Fuckhead of tiny cactus flowers blooming in Phoenix:

To catch the bus home each day I walked through a vacant lot, and sometimes I'd run right up on one -- one small orange flower that looked as if it had fallen down here from Andromeda, surrounded by a part of the world cast mainly in eleven hundred shades of brown, under a sky whose blueness seemed to get lost in its own distances. Dizzy, enchanted -- I'd have felt the same if I'd been walking along and run into an elf out here sitting in a little chair. The desert days were already burning, but nothing could stifle those flowers.


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