Remembering Author Denis Johnson Author Denis Johnson has died at the age of 67. He was best known for the short story collection Jesus' Son.
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Remembering Author Denis Johnson

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Remembering Author Denis Johnson

Remembering Author Denis Johnson

Remembering Author Denis Johnson

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Author Denis Johnson has died at the age of 67. He was best known for the short story collection Jesus' Son.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Denis Johnson has died at the age of 67. John Updike said he had the gleaming economy and aggressive minimalism of early Hemingway. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel "Tree Of Smoke," but his best-known work might be his 1992 short story collection, "Jesus' Son," about a group of addicts who ranged around rural America. A character in one story says, (reading) I'd been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I'd ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised and carried one another to heaven.

Denis Johnson was the son of a diplomat who was a liaison with the CIA, and he grew up overseas and in comfortable suburbs. But he told an interviewer in 2003, the stories of the fallen world, they excite us. That's the interesting stuff.

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Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote Of The 'Painfully Beautiful,' Dies At 67

Denis Johnson, who won the 2007 National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, died Thursday. Cindy Johnson/ Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux hide caption

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Cindy Johnson/ Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Denis Johnson, who won the 2007 National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, died Thursday.

Cindy Johnson/ Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Updated at 3:12 p.m. ET

Denis Johnson, the author behind the seminal collection Jesus' Son, has died at the age of 67. A protean stylist who made a career of defying readers' expectations, he crafted fiction, poetry and reportage that was often as unsparing as it was unconventional.

Johnson's publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, initially announced that the National Book Award-winning novelist died Thursday, but it later amended the account to say his death came the day before. His literary agent, Nicole Aragi, confirmed that Johnson died Wednesday of liver cancer.

"Denis was one of the great writers of his generation," FSG's president and publisher, Jonathan Galassi, said in a statement Friday. "He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was."

"Brutally honest and painfully beautiful" — that's how novelist Nathan Englander described Johnson's work in 1992's Jesus' Son, a brief, unvarnished set of interwoven stories that focus on the desperate lives of drug addicts.

"He doesn't ever romanticize these dark settings while leaving his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world," Englander wrote of Johnson in 2007, adding: "With dialogue that feels like you're getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work."

The same year that Englander praised him on NPR, Johnson went on to win the National Book Award for a significantly heftier work — at least in physical size. Tree of Smoke, a deep dive into covert operations during the Vietnam War, only added proof to the notion Johnson was "a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster," reviewer Alan Cheuse said at the time.

And Johnson, whose novella Train Dreams was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer, proved to be prolific both on the page and off: The author of about 20 books, including several collections of poetry, he pursued journalistic stories in Somalia and Liberia, among other places around the world.

In Liberia's capital city in 1990, the dogs were doing well "because they feed on human corpses," he wrote in "The Civil War in Hell," a piece included in the nonfiction collection Seek. "The people are starving, but the dogs have put on weight."

From book to book, Johnson frequently slipped seamlessly into new voices.

"I get bored quickly and try another style, another genre, another form," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, around the time he released his 10th novel, Laughing Monsters. "To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it's all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences."