Poet and novelist, who described his work as a ‘zoo of wild utterances’, was the winner of the National Book Award and twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize
by Danuta Kean
The acclaimed author and poet Denis Johnson has died aged 67. Best known for his classic short-story collection Jesus’ Son, Johnson won the National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke in 2007 and was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize for fiction. His work has been compared to that of Raymond Carver and William Burroughs.
Alex Bowler, his UK publisher at Granta, called him a “singular writer and author of at least two immortal masterpieces”.
“His writing was so vital and distinct,” Bowler said. “It never patronised the reader and was work of such sympathy and energy. He was a genius.”
According to Bowler, Johnson brought “the unseen to life”, whether addicts, labourers or CIA operatives. “But he didn’t just make them visible, he made them incandescent and gave the authentic voice of their experience. They were works of huge empathy.”
Born in Munich in 1949, the son of a US state department official who liaised with the CIA, he spent his childhood in Tokyo, Manila and Washington DC among diplomats and the military. John Updike said his writing had “the gleaming economy and aggressive minimalism of early Hemingway”.
A student of Carver’s at the University of Iowa, Johnson was 19 when he published his first poetry collection, The Man Among the Seals. His first novel, Angels, was published to critical acclaim in 1983, but it was his 1992 short-story collection, Jesus’ Son, that saw him break through to a wider audience. Taking its title from the refrain in the Velvet Underground song Heroin, it features 11 stories about a group of addicts living in rural America. It is written in a style that seems chaotic, to reflect the mental state of the characters, and was adapted into a 1999 film starring Dennis Hopper and Billy Crudup.
In 2003, he told an interviewer: “The stories of the fallen world, they excite us. That’s the interesting stuff.” He later went on to describe his work as a “zoo of wild utterances”.
Tree of Smoke was set in the Vietnam war and revived the character Bill Houston, who first appeared in Angels. In the Guardian, Geoff Dyer described it as a “whopping mega-ton” of a novel. Calling Johnson “an artist of strange diligence”, Dyer wrote: “Central to Johnson’s dramatised worldview is the belief that it is the mangled and damaged, the downtrodden, who are best placed to achieve – ‘withstand’ is probably a better verb – enlightenment.”
He published, among other work, nine novels, five poetry collections, a novella, three plays and two screenplays. His last published book was the 2014 novel The Laughing Monsters. A convoluted, cosmopolitan tale of espionage set in Africa, it is narrated by a Swiss-educated, Dutch-based Danish-American sent by Nato to Sierra Leone to spy on Michael Adriko, an Israeli-trained Ugandan mercenary gone awol while serving with the US army in the Democratic Republic of Congo after spells in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Johnson spent a month in Uganda researching the novel. In an interview during his time in Africa, he joked: “I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene.”