Acclaimed fiction writer, poet, and playwright Denis Johnson, most famous for his short story collection Jesus' Son which was turned into a 1999 film of the same name, died Wednesday at the age of 67 at his home in Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County. The cause was cancer, as the SF Chronicle reports, and his death was confirmed by his literary agent Nicole Aragi.
He is survived by his third wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, and their three children.
Johnson was a huge figure in the fiction world despite having written relatively few books. Jesus' Son, was cited in a 2006 New York Times poll as one of the most important works of fiction of the previous 25 years. His last book, Laughing Monsters, was published in 2014, and he won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, his novel about the Vietnam War. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for that novel, as well as for his 2012 novella Train Dreams. The New Yorker has assembled all of the stories of his that they published over the last three decades, which are linked and available to read here. I highly recommend "Work" from 1988, one of the central, most compact and most moving of the stories that ended up in Jesus' Son.
Work, however, was not necessarily something Johnson was fond of. He joked with the New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman just a few weeks before his death, when she asked him if he would contribute something on the topic of "jobs" to this year's fiction issue. "Come now," he wrote back, "don’t you know that in certain circles we don’t even utter ‘the J-word’? My second wife came home one day and said, ‘When are you gonna get a job?’ and it came over me like a revelation, and I said never. And she left. But she came back. (Later left again.) That’s my whole contribution to the J subject.”
He also claimed only to have written his last novel so that he could buy a piece of land he wanted next to his own in Idaho.
In his own novels and poems, Mr. Johnson fulfilled that task with extraordinary savagery and precision. He used his startling gift for language to create word pictures as detailed and visionary, and as varied, as paintings by Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch, capturing the lives of outsiders the lost, the dispossessed, the damned with empathy and unsparing candor. Whether set in the bars and motels of small-town America, or the streets of wartime Saigon, his stories depict people living on the edge, addicted to drugs or adrenaline or fantasy, reeling from the idiocies and exigencies of modern life, and longing for salvation.
Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and the man who published Jesus' Son, called Johnson “one of the great writers of his generation," and added in a statement to the Associated Press, "He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was."
Kakutani adds, "Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound; families are often fragmented or nonexistent; and primal, Darwinian urges have replaced the rule of law. And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope glimpses of the possibility of redemption."