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Michael Cunningham, May 27, 2017
If words like “significant” and “great” imply originality, vision, scope, scale, a unique and powerful voice, and a profound sense of the human condition in all its forms -- Denis Johnson was and is, without question, significant, and great.
For whatever it’s worth, I teach undergraduates, and can tell you that Denis is the favorite writer of more students than any other writer I could name. His work is deeply embraced by the next generation of readers and writers.
And, for whatever it’s worth, he’d finished a collection of short stories before he passed away. There’s still one more book to come.
We can be grateful, as well, for the fact that he was part of the Fine Arts Work Center community, having been a fellow in 1981-82. FAWC has every reason to be proud of its role in encouraging Denis’ work, early on, and of its continuing efforts to encourage and support new writers, every year. Early recognition of Denis’ genius can only help to remind us of the vital work FAWC has been doing for decades, and will go on doing.
The writer Nathan Englander described Denis’ work as "Brutally honest and painfully beautiful. He doesn't ever romanticize (his) dark settings, while remaining open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world. With dialogue that feels like you're getting it verbatim, and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest prose that has the bigness of great work."
As Denis said of his own work, “I have a feeling God finds us pretty funny. But that’s all the speaking I should do for God — he doesn’t go around talking about me.” It’s a small, but probably not inconsequential, tribute that last night I found myself texting Denis Johnson quotes back and forth, from memory, with a fellow fan.
Me: “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” (The final line in the story, “Work”).
My friend Joshua Cohen: “She pulls her parka hood back and floats there like an ark in a deluge of the sun, this California with its fugitives and windmills and artichokes and clouds like thighs. Its vacancies at pink motels. Modesto in the dust. Walnuts shaken down by early quakes. Spanish razors. And here you come with your gypsy blood and your secret suit, feeling like fuck on fire.” (From the novel, Already Dead).
How many writers can one quote like that, in the middle of the night, in a crowded bar?
There’s some consolation, as well, in the fact that Denis’ genius was recognized while he was alive. He won the National Book Award for the novel Tree of Smoke, in 2007, and was twice short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. The poet Mark Strand selected Denis’ collection, The Incognito Lounge, for the National Poetry Series in 1981. Denis received fellowships from the Lannan and Guggenheim foundations, an award from the Whiting Foundation, and the Agha Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review, among other honors.
He was an important poet as well as a fiction writer, and any writer who’s produced books of poetry like The Incognito Lounge and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, as well as novels and story collections that include Angels, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, and Train Dreams, has done more with his life than just about anyone else I could name.
I can tell you as well that he was much loved by his wife, Cindy Lee, and by his three children. This is anecdotal but, I suspect, true – Cindy kept putting Post-It notes for Denis around the house, on which she’d write “Say no to everything.” By which she meant, avoid the distractions that come with fame, just keep writing.
Nice to have had a mate like that.
Let’s all pause, then, not only in our grief, but in our appreciation. Denis wasn’t with us nearly long enough. He was with us, though, he made a genuine impact, and he’ll keep on being read not only by we who love him already, but by readers not yet born.
Thank you, Denis. Blessings on your journeys.