Denis Johnson r.i.p.

I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.

Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.

Denis Johnson I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.

‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.

‘He’s still down there.’

‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’

‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.

‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’

‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’

Denis Johnson His novella Train Dreams (2012) is less grimy, but still rugged. It’s set in the American west in the early twentieth century. A good place to start with the longer fiction – but still only 116 pp.

I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.

That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.

His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.

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4 thoughts on “Denis Johnson r.i.p.

  1. Thanks for noting his passing. I’ve only actually read one of his books, but I absolutely loved it, thought it hasn’t seemed to get much of a mention this week – “Already Dead”. I think I thought this was so good that I was kind of scared to read any more of his work in case it didn’t live up to this.

  2. Sad news indeed. Like Kaggsy, I’ve only read one of his books — Train Dreams in my case — but I liked it a lot. What impressed me most was the way it seemed to capture the life of a man in so few pages. The style was very economical, but it seemed to convey so much.

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