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Writers and Critics on Denis Johnson - Fiction Prize

About Denis Johnson

The Writers Speak

Michael Cunningham

It’s impossible for me to be brief and yet explicit about the significance of Denis Johnson’s work: about its excoriating beauty, its potency, its mortal mysteries. I’ll confine myself to this, then. I’ve taught fiction-writing for years, and have found that my students produce faux Denis Johnson at a rate approximately ten times that of any other writer they might choose to emulate. Clearly, the next generation is taking Johnson along with them, into the future.

Don DeLillo

Denis Johnson was and is and will continue to be one of our strongest writers. His work has an indigenous beat that marks it as unmistakably American. In his fiction we encounter characters who “looked broken and thrown away,” and every stretch of humor has an edge. I knew Denis for a time some years ago and the sadness of his passing extends toward the promise of work now lost to time and fate.

Nathan Englander

I fell in love with Denis Johnson’s writing in the purest way possible. Someone—I can’t remember who—gave me a Xeroxed copy of the first story in Jesus’ Son, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking." If you look at the book, you'll see Denis Johnson’s name is absent from the margins, and not even the whole title of the story is there. So I read what I thought was called "Car Crash," a stand-alone story, by an anonymous author. I was very instantly blown away by it, and deeply moved by it. And then, in the way good reading makes you feel like your connection to it was fated, I soon ended up with a copy of the collection in which the story appears in my hands. The moment I started reading, I thought, ‘This is that guy.’ And I read on and on, and thought, ‘This guy is that good.’

I was living in Iowa City at the time, and this book, for my friends and me, became sort of a young writers’ bible. We marveled at those stripped-down, honest stories that contained all the bigness of great work. And, as young writers, we thought, This is the kind of thing that could be done. We took hope away from the work, is what I’m saying. And we found hope inside those stories, as well. To stick with the painful and stunning "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," the narrator ends up back in detox and at rock bottom. He's hearing voices, seeing things, and, acknowledging his pitiable state, he addresses us, his dear readers. He says quite frankly, "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you." Yes, we did. We expected it, and we’ll continue to expect it, as we return to those stories and novels and essays and poems, to mine all the help within.

Louise Erdrich

Denis Johnson’s are the rarest sort of books—works of radical human sympathy written with cliff-walking literary genius. His books involve us in the implosion of the spirit, and the fragility of personal salvation. Johnson’s work lays bare our faltering human glory and shame. From the stirring surreal incantation that is Train Dreams, to the meticulous hyper-reality of Tree of Smoke, his reach will always be profound. Although I never had the chance to meet him, I mourn Denis Johnson’s loss personally, as a reader and fellow writer. I’m glad he took pleasure in receiving this grand recognition. Everyone who reads Denis Johnson comes away thinking he has spoken directly to some wracked and ragged, yet transcendent, aspect of their own secret heart.

Jonathan Franzen

You can tell he started as a poet. His sentences, at their best, are miracles of transparency and tone, perfect in the way they inhabit the page but devoid of vanity about their perfection, always vivid in their reference to the actual but also always conveying something larger: their creator’s own self-knowledge and compassion and sense of cosmic comedy. The God I want to believe in has a voice like Johnson’s.

Marilynne Robinson

I have never known a writer who was so identical with his work, whose thoughts and passions and energies were so entirely of one substance with the world he re-made as fiction. The great energy of his imagination was a fusion of honesty and seriousness, pain and laughter. His life was a thing of moment and urgency, pure and undistracted.

Philip Roth

When I was asked to nominate a writer for this year’s Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction I did so in eight words: “My sole nominee is the great Denis Johnson.” Johnson brought news from the darkest, wildest depths of American life as Mark Twain did in chapters of Huckleberry Finn and Faulkner in a slew of novels. From the moment I began reading his terrifying first novel Angels, I felt his strength and his daring and recognized his place of eminence among those of his brilliant American predecessors for whom desperation and savagery were depicted with searing originality in a prose style uniquely evocative of the broken souls each brought remorselessly into tortured being. There was no one like him in tracking the descent of what he called in Already Dead “isolated minds bending around tightly to feed on themselves.”

Zadie Smith

No writer was more admired by his peers than Denis Johnson. His thousands of readers adored him too of course, but for writers there was an added layer of professional awe. How does one go about writing a book as luminous as Train Dreams? How were the stories of Jesus’ Son constructed, with their seamless mix of the sacred and profane? So much of Denis’ fiction reads like Apocrypha from some long-suppressed American bible. I loved it all. He worked at a level different from the rest of us—a true master.

The Critics Speak

Jane Ciabattari,, National Book Critics Circle

Beginning with the darkly radiant stories in Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson opened pathways and possibilities for fiction writers of his own generation and those to follow. His range was immense, from the full-blown universe of Vietnam-era intrigue and brutality in Tree of Smoke to the elegantly concise portrait of one railroad man's circumscribed life in the Idaho woods in Train Dreams. He will be remembered for his fearless explorations of what it means to be human, to fail and to love, to struggle with inner demons and encounter surprising moments of grace. And his miraculous ways of shaping language.

Nicholas Delbanco, Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Michigan

Certain writers seem to embody their culture's time and place. It's as though they have been singled out by what the Germans label "Zeitgeist" to become an articulate instrument by which a period makes its mark. They are self-appointed sometimes, more often anointed by others, restless and inventive and, if you'll forgive the oxymoron, predictably unpredictable. We never know what's coming next; we want and need to know.

Denis Johnson was such a writer, and was so from the start. From the first his language had a lyrical intensity, the force and range of street slang meshed with high poetic discourse: a seamless blend of mandarin and demotic prose. Always there came the kicker; always the gift of surprise.

Carol Edgarian, Founder,

Denis Johnson’s characters are the spiritually wounded among us—the addicts, transgressors and imps—whose stories he conjured with heartbreaking empathy. His was a post-apocalyptic world, but one he imbued with a singular humanity, that and the sensitivity of a poet and the unsparing gaze of an assassin.

Lorin Stein, Editor in Chief, Paris Review

Denis Johnson seems to me the most purely inspired writer of his generation. Whether he turned his hand to reportage or poetry, stories, plays, or novels, he took his dictation from the Muse. His dialogue had the reality of a late-night hallucination. No two of his books are alike. When he made you laugh or cry (and he could do both), it was always through the truth of his observations. In his best books there seemed to be no artifice at all. He took the fate of his characters seriously, not in a sentimental way, but as a Christian concerned with the mystery of salvation. Beyond that, he seemed to love watching people do things and hearing the way they talked, the sinners and madmen as much as the heroes. One thing most of his books do have in common: they are adventure stories and are young in spirit.

David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times, National Book Critics Circle

Denis Johnson was (let’s just say it) the finest American writer of his generation, the one I wish I could be. From Angels to the flawless stories of Jesus' Son; Seek to the deftly compressed Train Dreams, there is not another writer like him, not another writer so aware of the porous boundary between who we are and who we long to be. Johnson's real subject is transcendence, but don't let that fool you: He's as tough and clear-eyed a realist as there is. His achievement— in addition to those gorgeous sentences—is to trace the back and forth, the living and the longing, without flinching, without ever once looking away.

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