Denis Johnson, author of ‘Jesus’ Son’ and the first Distinguished Writer at BSU, dies at 67

Fiction writer, poet and playwright Denis Johnson gave a reading at Boise State University in October 2015 while he was teaching here for a semester. About 400 people turned out for the event. Johnson died Wednesday from liver cancer, a disease that was diagnosed while he was in Boise.
Fiction writer, poet and playwright Denis Johnson gave a reading at Boise State University in October 2015 while he was teaching here for a semester. About 400 people turned out for the event. Johnson died Wednesday from liver cancer, a disease that was diagnosed while he was in Boise. Boise State University

Denis Johnson, the prize-winning fiction writer, poet and playwright best known for his surreal and transcendent story collection “Jesus’ Son,” died Wednesday, at 67, according to his literary agent, Nicole Aragi. Johnson died of liver cancer at his home in The Sea Ranch, outside of Gualala, California.

Johnson, who is considered one of the great writers of his generation, had a deep connection to Boise and Boise State University.

“We’re all reeling,” said author and professor Mitch Wieland, who heads Boise State’s Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

Johnson lived in North Idaho for a time and visited Boise State University over the years. In the 2015, he became Boise State’s first Distinguished Writer, a guest teaching position most recently held by Joy Williams. Johnson spent the 2015 fall semester teaching classes, working with and mentoring Boise State graduate student writers — and loving Boise.

“He said it was the best place he had taught,” Wieland says. “He was just amazed at the literary community here. He did a reading and about 400 people showed up. He was just blown away. He said it was one of the best nights he had.”

The connection that brought Johnson to Boise came through Boise State University professors and authors Brady Udall and Martin Corless-Smith, who both studied with Johnson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

There was no one like him, Udall remembered.

“He was not your normal teacher,” he said. “He thought of himself as a writer and mentor, not a teacher. He took everyone’s ideas seriously and that was very rare in the way writing was taught at the time. He didn’t try to judge his students’ work. He would impart his knowledge, wisdom and insights about writing, life and everything — and when he did, it was always unexpected.”

Johnson’s cancer was diagnosed in Boise while he was teaching here.

Johnson was a literary prodigy. He published his first book at 19, but then became addicted to drugs. He dropped off the radar and lived on the streets for much of his 20s. That raw experience fueled his writing and gave him a deep empathy for the down-and-out, but it also impacted his health. During that time, he contracted hepatitis C.

For the first time in years, while at BSU, Johnson had health insurance that covered the treatment for hep C. In November 2015, doctors discovered he had stage 4 liver cancer. Johnson underwent surgery to remove much of his liver in December and spent time recovering in Boise before returning to his home in Northern California in February 2016.

“It was a miracle,” Udall said. “He thought — we all thought — he dodged it. He was really happy with his life.”

“The last time I saw him he looked great,” Wieland said. “He had gained weight; he looked healthy and upbeat. He was going to retire and enjoy life. We had all hoped it wouldn’t come back so fast.”

Wieland says Johnson’s Distinguished Writer term with helping to launch the expansion of Boise State’s MFA program. The university is adding an undergraduate degree in creative writing and has increased the program’s faculty.

“I credit everything that happened in the past few years to Denis agreeing to come here,” Wieland said.

Johnson’s honesty, humor and vulnerability were intensely admired by readers, critics and fellow writers, some of whom mourned him on Twitter.

He was extremely open in the classroom, too, Udall said.

“He would cry in class, often. I remember Denis was reading something from “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and he started weeping,” Udall said. “We all sat in this discomfort and eventually he stopped and said he had just quit smoking.”

Johnson attended a reading by Boise novelist Tony Doerr, who had just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his “All the Light We Cannot See” (Scribner).

“I just feel as though it’s such a loss not only for Idaho literature but for American literature,” Doerr said. “He inspired a whole generation of us who are now in our 40s; I’m here at Bowdoin College (in Maine) for commencement and it turns out that there’s a new generation of writers and readers in their early 20s who also adore his writing.”

“Denis was one of the great writers of his generation,” said Farrar, Straus & Giroux president and publisher Jonathan Galassi in a statement Friday. “He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”

Many remember him for “Jesus’ Son,” which in hazed but undeniable detail chronicled the lives of various drug addicts adrift in America. The title was taken from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” the stories were sometimes likened to William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”

Much of “Jesus’ Son” tells of crime, violence, substance abuse and the worst of luck. But, as related by a recovering addict with an unprintable name (his initials were F.H.), the stories had an underlying sense of connection, possibility and unknown worlds. In the story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the narrator looks upon an accident victim, a bloodied man taking his final breaths.

“He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into great pity upon a person’s life on this earth,” Johnson wrote. “I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

Johnson won the National Book Award in 2007 for his Vietnam War novel “Tree of Smoke” and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for “Tree of Smoke,” and, in 2012, for his novella “Train Dreams,” a story he set in Idaho. (Read Doerr’s review for the New York Times here.) His other works include the novel “Laughing Monsters” and “Angels,” the poetry collection “The Veil” and the play “Hellhound On My Trail.” The story collection “The Largess of the Sea Maiden,” his first since “Jesus’ Son,” is scheduled to come out January from the Penguin Random House imprint Dial Press.

“He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was,” said Galassi, who published “Jesus’ Son” and “Tree of Smoke” among other Johnson books.

“Jesus’ Son” was adapted into a 1999 film, starring Billy Crudup and included a cameo by Johnson. In 2006, “Jesus’ Son” was cited in a Times poll as among the important works of fiction of the previous 25 years.

The son of a State Department liaison, Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, and lived around world before settling in the Far West. He was a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson’s work. Johnson was married three times and is survived by his third wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, and their three children.

Hillel Italie of The Associated Press contributed to this story.