“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.” Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
Upon being offered the prize in March, Johnson said, “The list of past awardees is daunting, and I’m honored to be in such company. My head’s spinning from such great news!” After a protracted struggle with liver cancer, Denis Johnson died on May 24 of this year. He was sixty-seven.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced last week that Denis Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017), author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, and the novel Tree of Smoke, will posthumously receive the U.S. Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction during the 2017 Library of Congress National Book Festival, Sept. 2.
Hayden chose Johnson based on the recommendation of a jury of distinguished authors and prominent literary critics from around the world.
“Denis Johnson was a writer for our times,” Hayden said. “In prose that fused grace with grit, he spun tale after tale about our walking wounded, the demons that haunt, the salvation we seek. We emerge from his imagined world with profound empathy, a different perspective—a little changed.”
Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, the son of an American diplomat, and spent his childhood in the Philippines and Japan before returning to spend the rest of his youth in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He is the author of nine novels, as well as many plays, poetry collections, a short-story collection and a novella. Johnson won the National Book Award for his resonant Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
His short novel Train Dreams (2012) was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent work, The Laughing Monsters, was published in 2014. Johnson’s many other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Lannan Foundations and a Whiting Award.
Johnson’s characters were down on their luck (at least in the work that I’ve read) and created out of his own life and experience of being benched early on by alcohol and drugs, psychiatric care in his early twenties and after his first marriage. It apparently took him some time to realize that his addictions did nothing for his creativity. Once he became sober his output was prodigious. The eleven stories in Jesus’ Son, considered by many to be Johnson’s preeminent work, are linked by the same drug-addicted narrator. The fictions depict criminal activities in various parts of the U.S.
“The traveling salesmen fed me pills that made the lining of my veins feel scraped out, my jaw ached… I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened. Like I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside, I knew we’d have an accident in the rain. I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.”
― Denis Johnson,
Part of this write-up is courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress