Author, playwright and poet Denis Johnson has died.
Known for his written works, including the novel, Tree of Smoke, Johnson also penned the breakthrough collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son.
Johnson was born in Munich in 1949 and spent his childhood in Japan and the Philippines while his father worked with the United States Department of State. He later moved to Washington, D.C., before attending the University of Iowa where he earned a BA and MFA.
His first work, a poetry collection called The Man Among Seals, was published in 1969, when Johnson was only 19. It was followed by Angels, the 1983 novel, and 1992’s Jesus’ Son, the 160-page collection that spanned an array of controversial subjects.
Jesus’ Son told 11 stories about a group of drug addicts from a surreal, erratic and sometimes surreal point of view. The collection was inspired by Red Calvary, by Isaac Babel. In 2006, readers of The New York Times book reviews voted Jesus’s Son one of the best works of American fiction in the last 25 years. An addict for much of his early adult life, Johnson found himself living with his parents in 1978 and got clean upon the release of Angels. The transformation, he said, was one of a “criminal hedonist” turned “citizen of life.”
“I was addicted to everything. Now I just drink a lot of coffee,” Johnson told New York magazine.
One of is drinking partners was Raymond Carver, a Iowa State professor and one of Johnson’s early mentors.
Johnson authored about 20 books, including poetry collections, and pursued journalistic stories in Somalia & Liberia https://t.co/9bmoJYZyQz— NPR (@NPR) May 26, 2017
“I was actually concerned about getting sober,” he said. “This is typical of people who feel artistic. They feel if they get away from drugs and that crazy life, they won’t be writing as much, won’t have the inspiration.”
The 1999 film, Jesus’ Son starred Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Holly Hunter and Jack Black. Johnson had a cameo in the movie as a man who stabs his wife.
Tree of Smoke(2007) was set in the Vietnam and revived the character of Bill Houston, who first appeared in Angels. The novel was acclaimed by a number of critics. The New York Times called it a “tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder.” The novel won a 2007 National Book Award and was a finalist for a 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
“He doesn’t ever romanticize these dark settings while leaving his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world,” critic Nathan Englander said of Johnson’s work. “With dialogue that feels like you’re getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work.”
Johnson’s Train Dreams, appeared in The Paris Review in 2002, and was published as novella in 2012. It too was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Johnson’s last book, 2014’s The Laughing Monsters, was narrated by a Dutch-American in Africa who spies on an Israeli mercenary who joins the United States Army and goes AWOL. Johnson spent weeks in Africa researching the book.
Later in his career, Johnson was a resident playwright at the Intersection of the Arts in San Francisco, and held the distinguished Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux President and Publisher Jonathan Galasi called Johnson “one of the best writers of his generation who wrote prose with imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”
Johnson also penned three plays: Hellhound on My Trail: A Drama in Three Parts (2000); Shoppers: Two Plays (2002); and Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse (2012). They’ve been produced in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. His wrote screenplays for The Prom (1990) and Hit Me(1996).
Johnson was 67. He leaves his third wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, and three children.
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