Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:
In one of the rare interviews he did, the fiction writer and poet Denis Johnson — who died on Wednesday at 67 — was asked about his craft, and he quoted these lines from Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.” In his own novels and poems, Mr. Johnson fulfilled that task with extraordinary savagery and precision. He used his startling gift for language to create word pictures as detailed and visionary, and as varied, as paintings by Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch, capturing the lives of outsiders — the lost, the dispossessed, the damned — with empathy and unsparing candor. Whether set in the bars and motels of small-town America, or the streets of wartime Saigon, his stories depict people living on the edge, addicted to drugs or adrenaline or fantasy, reeling from the idiocies and exigencies of modern life, and longing for salvation.
…Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound; families are often fragmented or nonexistent; and primal, Darwinian urges have replaced the rule of law. And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope — glimpses of the possibility of redemption. In “Tree of Smoke,” “The Stars at Noon” (1986) and “The Laughing Monsters” (2014), America seems to have exported some of its native-born madness — limning what Mr. Johnson saw as the country’s military or cultural colonization of large swaths of the globe. Poverty and chaos multiply abroad, where the sun and the heat fuel a sense that the center cannot hold, that things are indeed falling apart.