Johnson, who died on Thursday at the age of 67, wrote the rarest of books—one that is loved both by high schoolers and the adults they become. Jesus’ Son, which was published in 1992, is a series of linked short stories about the exploits of a junkie named Fuckhead and other addicts. These are stories about drug and alcohol abuse, violence, the growing rot at the center of rural American life, and ultimately redemption. It’s a surreal and haunting book, but also a very funny one; as Jonathan Franzen once wrote, “The god I want to believe in has a voice and sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.” Johnson’s authorial voice in Jesus’ Son was both omniscient and fully tuned to the strange beating humanity of his characters—a sort of thousand-yard stare that didn’t miss a detail.
Johnson shared some traits with Kerouac and Bukowski, but he never romanticized or sentimentalized—or at least not without a measure of mischief. He also kept developing his voice, pushing it into new terrain. Jesus’ Son will no doubt loom over Johnson’s legacy, but he was a more than accomplished poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. (Seek, his collection of journalism, is as weird and good as nonfiction writing gets.) He’s written not one but two books that can vie for the best work of fiction in the 21st century—Tree of Smoke, an epic novel about the Vietnam War that may actually be his finest piece of writing, and Train Dreams, a twisted novella about an orphan growing up in the American West that somehow manages to be epic. Johnson’s influence also extends well beyond the page—he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a number of years.