Denis Johnson obituary

Award-winning American novelist, poet and screenwriter who wrote about fallen angels living in a fallen world

In novels, stories, plays and poems, Denis Johnson, who has died of liver cancer aged 67, wrote about characters best described as fallen angels. Life beset them with problems and they responded by taking to drugs or crime, or going on the road, each effort to cope creating new dilemmas. His best known work, Jesus’ Son (1992), is a short-story collection linked by its narrator, known only by the name others call him, Fuckhead. Bill Houston, the protagonist who is executed in Angels (1983), his first novel, reappears as his younger self in Johnson’s most successful novel, the sprawling Vietnam tale Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the US National Book award.

“What I write about,” Johnson said, “is the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking why it is like this if there’s supposed to be a god.”

It is difficult not to see the author reflected in his characters. Johnson was born in Munich, where his father, Alfred, worked for the US Information Agency, liaising with the CIA. His mother, Vera (nee Childress), was a home-maker as the family moved to postings in Tokyo, Manila and Washington DC. It was in Manila, at 14, that Denis began to indulge in alcohol and drugs.

As a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Iowa, he published his first book of poems, The Man Among the Seals (1969), with a prestigious small press. After graduation, he took a master’s at the Iowa writers programme, where he studied under Raymond Carver. A second small press book of poems followed, but the 70s were primarily lost to his addictions, including heroin. “I went from prodigy to prodigal in a hurry,” he said. In 1978 he returned to his parents’ home in Arizona, and began sobering up. At the same time, his eccentric grandmother Mimi moved in; their relationship would be the subject of his play Shoppers Carried By Escalators Into the Flames (2002).

Johnson’s 1982 collection of poems, Incognito Lounge, was selected by Mark Strand for the National Poetry Series. The author David Foster Wallace described Johnson’s poems as “horripilative” – raising the hairs on one’s arms. Angels followed, along with three more novels in the next eight years, before the editor Jonathan Galassi, at Farrar Straus Giroux, agreed to pay Johnson’s back taxes in return for the collection that became Jesus’ Son.

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson Photograph: PR Image

John Updike found the style reminiscent of early Hemingway, though the later Hemingway tone of self-pity that infuses Carver might be more to the point. The stories ring of Kerouac and the author, poet and screenwriter Barry Gifford, and though another critic compared them to William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, they have the pulpier, darker tone of Burroughs’ earlier novel Junkie. The collection was a critical success, and became a staple of creative writing programmes in America; Johnson himself became a professor, teaching writing at Boise State, Idaho, and the University of Texas. He received a number of awards, including Guggenheim and Lannan fellowships.

The linked stories of Jesus’ Son were turned into a 1999 film directed by Alison Maclean, starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton. By then Johnson had also moved into movies. He wrote a short film, The Prom (1990), for the director Steven Shainberg, for whom he then adapted Jim Thompson’s pulp novel A Swell Looking Babe into the much underrated neo-noir feature Hit Me (1996).

Johnson’s novels that followed, especially Already Dead (1997) and Nobody Move (2009), often used the tropes of genre fiction to give them structure. After seeing Arliss Howard and Holly Hunter perform a reading of a part of his 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Johnson also began writing for theatre, with Hellhound on My Trail (2000) and Shoppers. Two verse plays, Soul of a Whore and Purvis, were published in 2012.

A novella, Train Dreams, which won the Aga Khan award from the Paris Review in 2002, was published as a book in 2011, and a ninth novel, The Laughing Monsters, set in Sierra Leone, appeared in 2014. A new collection of stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is due to be published next January.

Angels ends with Bill Houston in the gas chamber, experiencing a moment which sums up Johnson’s writing. “He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realised he was taking it. He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come. That’s it. That’s the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.”

Johnson’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Cindy Lee Nash, a daughter and two sons.

• Denis Hale Johnson, writer, born 1 July 1949; died 25 May 2017


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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