Denis Johnson, the writer most well-known for Jesus’ Son, died on May 24, 2017 at age 67

Great writers are not necessarily good storytellers, but when these two elements align, this reader knows he’s onto something special. That’s how I felt when I picked up Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, who died on May 24. Johnson himself said this about his book of short stories for which he is best known: “What’s funny about Jesus’ Son is that I never even wrote that book, I just wrote it down. I would tell these stories and people would say, ‘You should write these things down.’”

Johnson’s death was announced by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The Associated Press reported that Galassi issued a statement saying, “Denis was one of the great writers of his generation. He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”

Denis Johnson was born in Munich, Germany in 1949. His father served at the time with the U.S. State Department. Johnson also lived in the Philippines and Japan before his family settled in suburban Washington, DC. He attended the University of Iowa’s famed Writers Workshop where he studied with Raymond Carver.

Like many of the characters that populated his fiction, Johnson spent most of the 1970s addicted to drugs and alcohol before getting clean in 1983. He cribbed the title to Jesus’ Son from the lyrics to The Velvet Underground song “Heroin.”

Johnson first published a book of poetry, The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19. In 1983, he published his first novel, Angels, followed by Jesus’ Son in 1992. Other work followed and in 2007 his novel, Tree of Smoke was published, winning that year’s National Book Award for Fiction as well as being a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Set in Vietnam from 1963-1970, the book traces the history of Bill Houston, the main character from Angels, his first novel.

His obituary in the Associated Press quotes an interview with the New York Times in which Johnson cites some of his 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.”

In 1999, Jesus’ Son was made into a movie of the same name, starring Billy Crudup, with appearances by Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter and Dennis Leary.

“What's funny about Jesus' Son is that I never even wrote that book, I just wrote it down. I would tell these stories and people would say, ‘You should write these things down.’” - Denis JohnsonClick To Tweet