Sad to wake up and hear of the passing of Denis Johnson. What a writer! He was scheduled to be part of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival – the appearance cancelled due to health reasons. And now less than a week later – this news. Tragic.
I found Johnson’s books always at the time I needed them. His poetry got me back into reading poetry. The short stories that form a novella of sorts in Jesus’ Son were a revelation to me. His other great novella, Train Dreams (written in 2002 and published as a long story, then reprinted as a standalone volume in 2012) was great company when I was on holiday in America; it made the most sense to be reading it then and there, while in the land. Sometimes the right book finds you in the right place, right time of life, right space. It was true, too, with Jesus’ Son. There I was in the Sounds, on holiday. Idyllic. A gritty read – and all the time in the world to just fall into it.
I haven’t read all of Johnson’s works, in fact I own more books by Denis Johnson than I’ve read. That’s often the way with favourite writers now for me – collect them up and wait. One day I’ll get into Tree of Smoke, which I’m sure is worthy of all its praise but just seems too big; too daunting. Maybe I’ll start it tomorrow now? Same with The Laughing Monsters, it’s just moved right up the list…
Johnson was a student of Raymond Carver; that alone probably sold him to me. But his words, his grey, unique worlds, that is what kept. An astonishing writer, diverse too across the forms – stories, poems, novels, essays, plays, screenplays, novellas – anything, everything. Just getting the word down, crafting, paring back. Beautiful.
He had his demons, he had – at one point at least – conquered them. He battled hard against drugs and alcohol, was lucid, illuminating, brutally honest in his writing about characters that were troubled, had troubles; no judgements though. Stark, profound, a depth of humanity, a great understanding of the human condition…that’s what I found and will continue to find on his many pages.