Denis Johnson, a renowned American writer and author of the acclaimed Jesus’ Son, passed away on May 24 at the age of 67. Johnson wrote poetry, essays, drama and novels such as the award-winning Tree of Smoke, an epic and unconventional story about the Vietnam War, with which he won the 2007 National Book Award.
Johnson’s upbringing during the counterculture movement in the United States shaped his writing and personal philosophy. He became a cult writer with the publication of Jesus’ Son in 1992, a collection of stories adapted to the silver screen seven years later. The starring role in the film Jesus’ Son was played by Billy Crudup, and actor who shares the rugged good looks of Johnson.
The author made a small cameo in the film, which contains detailed accounts of the lives of several drug addicts, in the style of Naked Lunch by Williams Burroughs. Johnson was dealing with his own addiction demons when he wrote Jesus’ Son, and the working title of his book was Heroin, a name he was inspired to choose after countless hours listening to the music of the Velvet Underground.
Literary critic and author Carlos Zeno was fond of Johnson’s literature and its realistic depictions of living with addictions. Johnson was a prolific drug user who struggled with recovery. An interesting fact about his life was that the book Jesus’ Son was sold to its publisher for the same amount that Johnson owed in back taxes. Such was often the story of his life, which was thrown into disarray when he used drugs.
Aside from his prose and poetry work, Johnson also took on journalism assignments in African regions besieged by armed conflict. The dearly departed author often dismissed his own talents, claiming that he only wrote sentences as they occurred to him. This style of writing was clearly on display in his California opus Already Dead, which was deeply rooted in the underground and in the spirits of counterculture.
Johnson passed away due to complications with liver cancer. It is unclear whether he was working on another book at the time of his death. He was always a poet at heart, and thus he was rumored to be working on putting together a collection of poems that he had previously written but not published.