Great Gray Brains

by a contributor

Michael Wolfe

In spring of 2007, in central Texas, I taught one section of Composition II while finishing an MFA in creative writing. Denis Johnson had spent the year as our program’s endowed chair, teaching a graduate fiction workshop and putting the finishing touches on Tree of Smoke, which would win the National Book Award.

If you’re a freshman reading this and you’re in a composition course taught by a first- or second-year graduate assistant—know that s/he is clueless. We had no idea what the fuck to do. After six years of teaching composition, I am as mystified by it as I was my first day.

Half of my job as a comp teacher was tossing up ideas and texts to see what stuck. Here’s a Didion-smash, a Welty-plop. The shattered Wallace, busted Baldwin. The department issued us with a doorstopper anthology that my students loathed more than I did; it was only in criticizing its editors where we shared taste.

When the English department announced that Denis would be visiting, Sue—the woman responsible for teaching graduate students how to teach—asked for volunteers to help her develop curriculum based on Train Dreams. I knew that my students weren’t going to dig it, and after two and a half years of teaching freshmen and receiving remarkably average course evaluations, it seemed clear that I wasn’t about to have a teaching breakthrough. The only thing I knew to do was to teach what I loved. So I volunteered.

But to teach your favorite writers is suicide. You sacrifice the sacred. You enter into an agreement with 18-year-olds to share your best insights about a text that pickles your guts and gets you laid, and you hope it will affect them in the same way, then in a similar way, and by your third or fourth semester teaching, you’d settle for a way.

I loaned Sue three or four of Denis’ books, and when I asked her about teaching Jesus’ Son instead of Train Dreams, she said, “Too grim.”

There’s always a full candy dish on her desk and it’s the sort of candy dish you could feel guilty taking multiple pieces from.

“There’s a movie,” I said. “Jack Black is in it. They like Jack Black. They can relate to him.”

Train Dreams can be taught through a historical lens, which will be good for these students. It’s very teachable.”

“It’s so long,” I said, speaking on behalf of my students, and just like them. “Almost a hundred pages!”

I taught both. In fact, I created an entire unit—the final unit of the year—called Denis Johnson. I photocopied five stories from Jesus’ Son and assembled hundreds of pages in the front seat of my car across the street from the University, like some deranged pamphleteer. If I’d made enough money to buy them their own books I absolutely would have.

But I couldn’t buy them books any more than I could tell them what to like. Suddenly you’re put in charge of transforming lives by cultivating a new generation of creative and critical thinkers, and more than 3/4 of them told you on the first day they were only in your class because it was required, they hate English. Graduation nears and you realize you haven’t a clue what’s next, all you want to do is write one true sentence, then another, and you realize you’re another MFA cliché and your favorite author is Denis Johnson, who’s sitting five feet from you reading “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” You realize that this is as good as it gets, and that those 22 kids who don’t know how lucky they are and who are responsible for your teaching evaluations, your future—those 44 eyeballs stabbing your hangover at 9 o’clock on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning—well, they’re ridiculous.

After Denis read that last line, they stared at us, and us at them, each other, the clock. We still had twenty minutes left of class. I’d only ever wanted to say just that to them: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” And here I had, if only a hand didn’t suddenly raise, if Denis or I didn’t speak from terror of those eyeballs staking us, if a cell phone didn’t ring. I never asked them what they were thinking and I didn’t care—still don’t. My only thought was please don’t anyone say anything, please listen to this.

One of the miracles of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is in the silence that follows the story. Five years later I’m not certain how long ours lasted after he finished reading, and anything I say will ring wrong—33 seconds or 2 1/2 minutes, until we heard the classes next to us rustle the hallways, the bus brakes hiss outside, life call—all I can say honestly is that it was long enough for an impact. It resembled the final shot of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video: school kids stunned, blood drying on their hands and faces. Denis shrugged his shoulders and class dismissed.

Michael Wolfe was given a signed German translation of Jesus’ Son that he can’t read. He co-founded Front Porch ( and his writing and interviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Phoebe, American Book Review and elsewhere. He lives in L.A.