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Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote 'Jesus' Son,' Dies At 67


The literary world is mourning the death of a man who has been called one of the greatest writers of his generation. Denis Johnson won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 67. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Johnson, says Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, is a writer's writer. Galassi worked with Johnson on some of his best-known books - his story collection "Jesus' Son," his Vietnam War novel "Tree Of Smoke" which won the National Book Award and his novella "Train Dreams" which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Johnson may have gotten the most attention for his prose, Galassi says, but he wrote with the empathy of a poet.

JONATHAN GALASSI: He started out as a poet, and then he started writing novels. And I remember him once saying, well, I can dream these novels up in a day, but it takes me months to write them.

NEARY: Galassi says Johnson was perhaps the most original writer of his generation. His work is infused with a hallucinatory quality, born out of his experiences in the 1960s and '70s.

GALASSI: In his early phase of life, those hallucinations were enhanced by controlled substances which were part of the magic and the horror of his imagination.

NEARY: Johnson recovered from drug addiction in the late 1970s. But in 1991, he told WHYY's Fresh Air that he held onto some of the insights he had gained during his time on drugs.


DENIS JOHNSON: The world is very poetic as I experienced it. You know, you can just open a door, and there'll be a world of fire and chaos on the other side. And you can shut that door and open another, and you know, all is sweetness and light. And I think that's something I experienced by messing up my head a lot, and it's something that stayed with me. And I don't think it's necessarily a bad perception to have.

NEARY: Johnson was able to balance violence with transcendence in his work. His writing was not biographical, says publisher Jonathan Galassi, but he drew deeply from his own experiences.

GALASSI: He has experienced the intensity, the depth, the despair, the direct hit of life in similar ways. And I think he's very, very touched by it, destroyed by it. There's something very religious about Denis' work, I think.

NEARY: Galassi says he's been touched by the large number of people who have contacted him since news of Denis Johnson's death has spread, a tribute, he says, to how important Johnson was to so many. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CAMPESINOS SONG, "YOU! ME! DANCING!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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