Rachel Kushner at Bookforum:
DENIS JOHNSON UNDERSTOOD the impulse to check out. He understood a lot of things, including the contradictory nature of truth. He himself was the son of a US State Department employee stationed overseas, a well-to-do suburban American boy who was “saved” from the penitentiary, as he put it, by “the Beatnik category.” He went to college, published a book of poetry by the age of nineteen (The Man Among the Seals), went to graduate school and got an MFA, but was also an alkie drifter and heroin addict: a “real” writer, in other words (who, like any really real writer, can’t be pigeonholed by one coherent myth, or by trite ideas about the school of life). Later he got clean and became some kind of Christian, published many novels and a book of outstanding essays (Seek), lived in remote northern Idaho but traveled and wrote into multiple zones of conflict—Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and famously, in Tree of Smoke, wartime Vietnam. Perhaps being raised abroad, in various far-flung locations (Germany, the Philippines, and Japan), gave him a better feeling for the lost and ugly American, the juncture of the epic and pathetic, the suicidal tendencies of the everyday joe, which seem to have been his wellspring.
His connection to “people who totaled their souls,” as one character puts it in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his new and final contribution to literature, is a vital tenor of his work, even a central one. His passion for wrecked people certainly spawned a kind of cult status, which was rampant in the 1990s, when I was young and Johnson came into his phosphorous popularity. It was hero worship of totaled souls, by totaled souls. Hero worship isn’t malicious. No harm is meant.