Denis Johnson, Who Wrote of the Failed and the Desperate, Dies at 67
Denis Johnson, a National Book Award winner whose novels and short stories about the fallen — junkies, down-and-out travelers, drifters and violent men in the United States and abroad — emerged in ecstatic, hallucinatory and sometimes minimalist prose, died on Wednesday at his home in Gualala, Calif. He was 67.
The cause was liver cancer, his literary agent Nicole Aragi said.
Mr. Johnson came to his down-on-their-luck characters through personal experience. He had published a book of poetry, “The Man Among the Seals,” at 19 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Iowa. But addictions to alcohol and drugs, including heroin, derailed him. He was in a psychiatric ward at 21, he said, and hospitalized again during the first of his three marriages.
Mr. Johnson initially believed that sobriety would damage his creativity, but later realized that his addictions were not fueling much writing.
“I finally figured it only meant I’d be writing three paragraphs less a year,” he told New York magazine in 2002, “because I’d only written two stories and 37 poems in almost a decade.
That output would accelerate. By the early 1980s he was sober and had begun a prolific few decades, turning out novels, plays, poetry and journalism. In his 1983 novel, “Angels,” a character on death row sits strapped in a gas chamber listening almost rapturously to his heartbeat as he awaits the end.
“Boom … Boom! Was there ever anything as pretty as that one?” Mr. Johnson wrote. “Another coming … boom! Beautiful! They just don’t come any better than that. He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it.”
In 1992 he published “Jesus’ Son,” a collection of 11 short stories about petty crimes and murder across a desperate American landscape. Each is linked by the same drug-using narrator.
Mr. Johnson told The New York Times that his narrator — the sort of wild American who shoots people — is someone who would appeal to people in 12-step programs. “Jung once said that inside of every alcoholic,” he said, “there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.”
Some critics have called “Jesus’ Son” Mr. Johnson’s masterpiece.
In The New Yorker, John Updike compared Mr. Johnson’s style to the “gleaming economy” of the young Ernest Hemingway. And in The Times, James McManus wrote that Mr. Johnson’s universe “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 made into a film in 1999 directed by Alison Maclean and starring Billy Crudup as the narrator, described by the critic A. O. Scott in The Times as “like Candide strung out on every drug he can find.” Mr. Johnson had a small role in it.
Denis Hale Johnson was born on July 1, 1949, in Munich. His father, Alfred, worked for the United States Information Agency and was variously posted to Manila, Tokyo and Washington. His mother, the former Vera Louise Childress, was a homemaker.
Mr. Johnson, who studied under the minimalist writer Raymond Carver at the University of Iowa, counted Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot and the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix among his influences, primarily for poetry.
He was sensitive to the “language of people jammed together, like in the military and prisons,” he told the Santa Monica radio station KCRW’s “Bookworm” podcast.
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