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R.I.P. Denis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son and Tree Of Smoke

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This morning, The Washington Post, NPR, and other news outlets are reporting that National Book Award-winning author Denis Johnson has died. Widely considered one of the greatest writers of his generation, the playwright, poet, and fiction writer died Thursday, according to president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Jonathan Galassi; no other details regarding his death have been shared. He was 67.

Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, in 1949, the son of a State Department liaison, and lived around the world before earning his BA and MFA at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied under Raymond Carver and later taught. Best known for his 1992 short story collection, Jesus’ Son, and the 2007 Vietnam novel Tree Of Smoke, Johnson was the author of more than 15 books of fiction and poetry, and five plays and screenplays. In addition to winning the National Book Award in 2007, Tree Of Smoke was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as was his 2012 novella Train Dreams. His work has also been widely anthologized, including one of his most recently published short stories, 2014’s “The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker.


Jesus’ Son, a linked short story collection named from a lyric in The Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” is frequently described as one of the most important literary works of Johnson’s generation and was included in a 2006 New York Times list of the 25 Best Books Of The Last 25 Years, alongside such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Marilynne Robinson. The book follows the alcohol- and drug-fueled exploits of the otherwise nameless narrator “Fuckhead” and is written in a surreal, electric, and beatific style, with potent line-by-line prose. In 1999, it was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Billy Crudup as the protagonist alongside Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, and Dennis Hopper. Johnson had a cameo in the film, as the man in the emergency room whose wife stabbed him in the eye in a scene based on the short story “Emergency.”


Today Johnson’s fellow writers and former students are sharing their memories of the author online, who was as beloved for his teaching and generous, empathetic spirit as he was his writing. Known as a writer’s writer, he advised his students to “Write naked. Write in exile. Write in blood.”