Updated at 10:47 a.m. ET
Denis Johnson, the author behind the seminal collection Jesus’ Son, has died at the age of 67. Jeff Seroy, a spokesperson for Johnson’s publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, confirmed that the National Book Award-winning novelist died Thursday but offered no further details.
“Denis was one of the great writers of his generation,” FSG’s president and publisher, Jonathan Galassi, said in a statement Friday. “He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”
“Brutally honest and painfully beautiful” — that’s how novelist Nathan Englander described Johnson’s work in 1992’s Jesus’ Son, a brief, unvarnished set of interwoven stories that focus on the desperate lives of drug addicts.
“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,” Englander wrote of Johnson in 2007, adding: “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.”
The same year that Englander praised him on NPR, Johnson went on to win the National Book Award for a significantly heftier work — at least in physical size. Tree of Smoke, a deep dive into covert operations during the Vietnam War, only added proof to the notion Johnson was “a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster,” reviewer Alan Cheuse said at the time.
And Johnson, whose novella Train Dreams was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer, proved to be prolific both on the page and off: The author of about 20 books, including several collections of poetry, he pursued journalistic stories in Somalia and Liberia, among other places around the world.
In Liberia’s capital city in 1990, the dogs were doing well “because they feed on human corpses,” he wrote in “The Civil War in Hell,” a piece included in the nonfiction collection Seek. “The people are starving, but the dogs have put on weight.”
From book to book, the protean writer frequently defied readers’ expectations, slipping into new voices with each publication.
“I get bored quickly and try another style, another genre, another form,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, around the time he released his 10th novel, Laughing Monsters. “To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it’s all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences.”
The son of a State Department liaison, Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, and lived around world before settling in Arizona and Idaho. He was a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson’s work. In a 1984 interview with The New York Times, he cited a wide range of influences.
“My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by — in chronological order — Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot,” he said. “Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write.”
But many remember him for “Jesus’ Son,” which in hazed but undeniable detail chronicled the lives of various drug addicts adrift in America. The title was taken from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” and the stories were sometimes likened to William Burroughs’ ”Naked Lunch.” Much of “Jesus’ Son” tells of crime, violence and substance abuse. But, as related by a narrator with an unprintable name (his initials were F.H.), the book also had an underlying sympathy and sense of possibility.
“Mr. Johnson’s is a universe governed by addiction, malevolence, faith and uncertainty,” James McManus wrote in the Times in 1992. “It is a place where attempts at salvation remain radically provisional, and where a teetering narrative architecture uncannily expresses both Christlike and pathological traits of mind.”
The book was adapted into a 1999 film of the same name, starring Billy Crudup. In 2006, the book was cited in a Times poll as among the important works of fiction of the previous 25 years.
The New Yorker
Denis Johnson, who died on Wednesday, at the age of sixty-seven, wept easily, without embarrassment. “I just do this a lot,” he told his students at a writing seminar in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July, 2000, where we were both teaching. The tears on this occasion came in response to a student’s question about how he chooses titles for his books. He was alarmingly candid about the demons that pursued him. Even while we were in Russia, he was looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. He was always on edge, treading a path that was strewn with temptation, addiction, and violence. Perhaps because we were in St. Petersburg when I first got to know him, Denis reminded me of Dostoyevsky, a writer who was willing to plumb the darkest corners of his own psyche in order to honestly report on the nature of humanity.
He lived in the woods in northern Idaho, at the top of the stovepipe, near the Canadian border. He had guns and books and a Corvette and an amused wife, Cindy, whom he clung to like a mast in a stormy sea. I think he kept himself out of society because he was too appealing. He captivated people with his humor and brilliance, but adulation was another form of intoxication that he fiercely avoided.