Award-winning author and former University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and faculty member Denis Johnson passed away Wednesday at the age of 67.
A writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays, Johnson leaned in to difficult subjects to expose the poetry in the mundane and grotesque with his deceptively simple prose. He explored underlying truths behind human behavior, and just when things got too dark to bear, he made us laugh.
The realism of his fiction was populated by a wide range of complex characters troubled by the underreported side effects of American realities. In nonfiction, Johnson filtered his reporting through his own perspective, creating evocative, voicey pieces a la New Journalism.
While much of Johnson’s writing delved into hidden pockets on the fringes of American society, he also wrote beautiful and heartbreaking essays about what he saw in countries like Liberia and Somalia. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, a historical fiction centered around the CIA’s covert operations in southeast Asia. Johnson’s father worked for the U.S. State Department and Johnson was actually born in Munich, which was part of West Germany at the time.
Johnson’s celebrated short story collection, called Jesus’ Son after a lyric from Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’, is like a box of snapshots from the lives of mostly drug addicts, mostly living in Iowa City. The collection was made into a movie of the same name starring Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton in 1999, in which Johnson has a cameo as a man who miraculously recovers from being stabbed in the eye by his wife.
In Jesus’ Son, Johnson joins authors like William Burroughs in presenting the drug-using subculture as a group of complex individuals rather than stereotypes. While the struggle of addiction is constant, it is not the characters’ sole occupation or motivation and there are moments of joy and poetry mixed in with the desperation. The sentences tumble through beauty and pain and dark, unexpected humor in quick succession, and sometimes embody all three at once — a common thread through both Johnson’s work and the bittersweet human condition he illuminated so strangely and brightly.