De­nis Johnson, au­thor of ‘Je­sus’ Son,’ dies

Cape Breton Post - - Obituaries -

De­nis Johnson, the prize-win­ning fic­tion writer, poet and play­wright best known for his sur­real and tran­scen­dent story col­lec­tion “Je­sus’ Son,’’ has died at age 67.

Johnson died Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to his lit­er­ary agent, Nicole Aragi. Johnson died of liver can­cer at his home in The Sea Ranch, out­side of Gualala, Cal­i­for­nia.

“De­nis was one of the great writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion,’’ Jonathan Galassi, pres­i­dent and pub­lisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said in a state­ment Fri­day. “He wrote prose with the imag­i­na­tive con­cen­tra­tion and em­pa­thy of the poet he was.’’

Johnson’s hon­esty, hu­mour and vul­ner­a­bil­ity were in­tensely ad­mired by readers, crit­ics and fel­low writ­ers, some of whom mourned him on Twit­ter. He won the Na­tional Book Award in 2007 for his Viet­nam War novel “Tree of Smoke’’ and was a fi­nal­ist for the Pulitzer Prize for “Tree of Smoke,’’ and, in 2012, for his novella “Train Dreams.’’ His other works in­clude the novel “Laugh­ing Mon­sters’’ and “An­gels,’’ the po­etry col­lec­tion “The Veil’’ and the play “Hell­hound On My Trail.’’ The story col­lec­tion “The Largess of the Sea Maiden,’’ his first since “Je­sus’ Son,’’ is sched­uled to come out Jan­uary from the Pen­guin Ran­dom House im­print Dial Press.

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,’’ the sto­ries were some­times likened to Wil­liam Bur­roughs’ “Naked Lunch’’ and the ex­pe­ri­ences were drawn in part from Johnson’s own strug­gles with ad­dic­tion. Much of “Je­sus’ Son’’ tells of crime, vi­o­lence, sub­stance abuse and the worst of luck. But, as re­lated by a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict with an un­print­able name (his ini­tials were F.H.), the sto­ries had an un­der­ly­ing sense of con­nec­tion, pos­si­bil­ity and un­known worlds. In the story “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing,’’ the nar­ra­tor looks upon an ac­ci­dent vic­tim, a blood­ied man tak­ing his fi­nal breaths.

“He wouldn’t be tak­ing many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and there­fore I looked down into great pity upon a per­son’s life on this earth,’’ Johnson writes. “I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dream­ing, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.’’

Re­view­ing the book for The New York Times, James McManus noted that “Mr. Johnson’s is a uni­verse gov­erned by ad­dic­tion, malev­o­lence, faith and un­cer­tainty.’’

“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,’’ McManus wrote.

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