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