Author, Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus Denis Johnson passes away

Photo by Cindy Lee Johnson

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.

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »



Fresh, local and hand crafted

Learn More

8 AM - 1 PM




World of Bikes presents:


Come talk with our experts about ways to stay on the bike this winter! Find out more at World of Bikes.

Get Started

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.