Good Grief: In Memory of Denis Johnson

DenisJohnsonDavid Culberg at Open Letters Monthly:

The Great American Novel was written in 1992. It came disguised as 130 pages of barely-connected short stories about a sibylline heroin addict named Fuckhead. In the twenty-five years since Jesus’ Son, literary editors and stoned undergraduates alike have struggled to articulate its appeal. We know we love it; we can’t agree on what it’s about.

Denis Johnson was born in West Germany in 1949 and died from liver cancer in May in his home in California. He had spent his life on the thin margins between freedom and subjection. His characters were dreamy losers who sought beauty at rock bottom. In one book he described them as being “proud of their clichés yet full of helpless poetry.” In another he wrote, “All around them men drank alone, staring out of their faces.” (If that were the only sentence he’d ever written, he would still deserve to be canonized.)

Johnson published only poetry for his first 34 years. The poems were good, and sunnier than his prose would prove to be. He published his first novel, Angels, in 1983. It follows a runaway and an ex-con and the down-and-outers they meet on a cross-country Greyhound trip to Phoenix. The book works as a knowing transition from Johnson’s poetry to his signature savage prose.

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