Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson (1949–2017)

Celebrated playwright, author, and poet Denis Johnson died at the age of sixty-seven on Wednesday, May 24. Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, confirmed his passing.

“Denis was one of the great writers of his generation,” Galassi said in a statement on Friday. “He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”

Best known for Jesus’ Son (1992) a collection of stories that chronicled the lives of drug dealers in America, and his six-hundred-page Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the National Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, Johnson was born in Munich in 1949. Since he was the son of a US State Department employee, his family moved frequently. Johnson spent his childhood in the Philippines, Tokyo, and Washington, DC, before settling in Arizona and Idaho. He graduated from the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, where he studied under Raymond Carver.

In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Johnson said, “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. 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.”

In 2012, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novella Train Dreams (2002). His other works include the novel Angels (1983), the poetry collection The Veil (1987), and the play Hellhound on My Trail (2000), and his most recent work, The Laughing Monsters (2014). Johnson also taught creative writing at several schools, including the Michener Center at the University of Texas, Austin; Boise State University; and the University of Iowa. Reflecting on his experience as a teacher, Johnson said, “I need to be around younger writers. They tell me what’s new, and they keep me thinking. They don’t let me forget what an adventure writing is, and how lucky I am to be living the adventure.”