'Jesus' Son' Author Denis Johnson Dies at 67

By Paul Gaita 05/30/17

The acclaimed author's struggles with drugs and alcohol helped shape his unforgettable writing.

Denis Johnson
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Author and poet Denis Johnson, whose own experiences with drug addiction informed his compelling novels and short stories about life on the fringes of society, died at his home in California on May 24.

The cause of death was liver cancer, according to his literary agent, Nicole Aragi. Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke, was perhaps best known for Jesus' Son, a 1992 collection of short stories concerning a drug addict's hallucinatory journey across an America riddled with crime, despair and violence.

The book, which drew comparisons to Ernest Hemingway for its economy and efficacy of language, was later adapted into a film in 1999, in which Johnson had a small role.

Born in Munich, Germany in 1949, Johnson was the son of a U.S. Information Agency worker and spent much of his childhood in far-flung locales, including Manila and Tokyo. He came to writing prose and poetry through a diverse array of influences from Dr. Seuss and Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot and the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

His early career and education showed great promise—a book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals, was published when he was 19, and he studied under Raymond Carver at the University of Iowa, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees—but addictions to alcohol and heroin put a roadblock in his progress. Three years after the publication of Seals, he was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.

Johnson was resistant to sobriety, believing that it would hamper his creative output, until he realized that it was actually hindering his writing. "I finally figured it only meant I'd be writing three paragraphs less a year," he said in 2002. "I'd only written two stories and 37 poems in almost a decade."

After gaining sobriety, Johnson published his first novel, Angels, in 1983, which was followed by numerous novels, plays and screenplays, collections of poetry and short stories, and two books of journalism. 

Johnson's characters traveled an orbit around the outer circles of society—trailer park dwellers, religious fanatics and bank robbers in Angels, a young woman trapped in the Nicaraguan underworld in The Stars at Noon, a male glee club singer turned criminal in Nobody Move. Their actions and observations were frequently unreliable and hampered by drugs and mental illness—the narrator of Jesus' Son is dubbed "Fuckhead" due to his addled perspective—and Johnson's prose swung from chaos to inertia in an attempt to echo the highs and lows of their physical and mental states. In Fiskadoro, a novel set in the Florida Keys after a nuclear apocalypse, communication itself has been reduced to a handful of Spanish and English words. 

For all their foibles and faults, Johnson saw his characters in search of spiritual wholeness. "Jung once said that inside of every alcoholic, there's a seeker who got on the wrong track," he told the New York Times. His personal spirituality was marked by questions and hypotheses about a mercurial higher power. "I have a feeling God finds us pretty funny," he said. "But that's all the speaking I should do for God—he doesn't go around talking about me."

Two of Johnson's novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, including Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986. His work earned praise from the likes of John Updike and David Foster Wallace, and was considered an inspiration for writers like Dave Eggers and Junot Díaz.

His advice to aspiring writers was as follows: "Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can't waste it. [And] write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.