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Denis Johnson, author of 'Jesus' Son,' dead at 67

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/26/2017 By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Denis Johnson, the prize-winning fiction writer, poet and playwright best known for his surreal and transcendent story collection "Jesus' Son," has died at age 67.

Johnson died Wednesday, according to his literary agent, Nicole Aragi. Johnson died of liver cancer at his home in The Sea Ranch, outside of Gualala, California.

"Denis was one of the great writers of his generation," Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said in a statement Friday. "He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was."

Johnson's honesty, humor and vulnerability were intensely admired by readers, critics and fellow writers, some of whom mourned him on Twitter. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his Vietnam War novel "Tree of Smoke" and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for "Tree of Smoke," and, in 2012, for his novella "Train Dreams." His other works include the novel "Laughing Monsters" and "Angels," the poetry collection "The Veil" and the play "Hellhound On My Trail." The story collection "The Largess of the Sea Maiden," his first since "Jesus' Son," is scheduled to come out January from the Penguin Random House imprint Dial Press.

Many remember him for "Jesus' Son," which in hazed but undeniable detail chronicled the lives of various drug addicts adrift in America. The title was taken from the Velvet Underground song "Heroin," the stories were sometimes likened to William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and the experiences were drawn in part from Johnson's own struggles with addiction. Much of "Jesus' Son" tells of crime, violence, substance abuse and the worst of luck. But, as related by a recovering addict with an unprintable name (his initials were F.H.), the stories had an underlying sense of connection, possibility and unknown worlds. In the story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," the narrator looks upon an accident victim, a bloodied man taking his final breaths.

"He wouldn't be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into great pity upon a person's life on this earth," Johnson writes. "I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real."

Reviewing the book for The New York Times, James McManus noted that "Mr. Johnson's is a universe governed by addiction, malevolence, faith and uncertainty."

"It 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," McManus wrote.

The book was adapted into a 1999 film of the same name, starring Billy Crudup and including a cameo by Johnson. In 2006, "Jesus' Son" was cited in a Times poll as among the important works of fiction of the previous 25 years.

The son of a State Department liaison, Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, and lived around world before settling in the Far West. He was a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson's work. Johnson was married three times and is survived by his third wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, and their three children.

In a 1984 interview with The New York Times, Johnson cited a wide range of influences.

"My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by — in chronological order — Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot," he said. "Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write."

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