© 2022 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR Arts & Life

Denis Johnson's Final Collection Of Short Stories Is Published


Denis Johnson was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction twice. He won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel, "Tree Of Smoke." He's probably best known for his first collection of short stories, "Jesus' Son," as a semi-autobiographical collection inspired by Johnson's own struggles with drugs and alcohol. He died last spring, but a much anticipated new collection of stories has just been published. Tom Vitale tells us more about the collection.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: The title story of "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden" opens with a provocative image - a veteran of the war in Afghanistan is at a dinner party. Asked what was the quietest sound he ever heard. He says it was the landmine that took off one of his legs. Then another guest asks if she can see the stump. He says only if you kiss it.


DENIS JOHNSON: Oh, well. OK, she said.

VITALE: Denis Johnson read the scene at Cornell University two years ago.


JOHNSON: And detached his prosthesis, a device of chromium bars and plastic belts strapped to his knee, which was intact, and swiveled upward horribly to present the puckered end of his leg. Deirdre got down on her bare knees before him, and he hitched forward in his seat to move the scarred stump within two inches of Deirdre's face. Now she started to cry.

CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN: It's a piece of fiction of rare economy and power.

VITALE: Christian Lorentzen is the book critic for New York Magazine. He says Johnson's fiction is not so much about the psychological development of his characters as it is about the style of his writing.

LORENTZEN: And particularly the emphasis on voice and image over psychology makes him a very poetic writer of prose fiction.

VITALE: Denis Johnson started out as a poet, publishing his first collection of verse in 1969 when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Iowa. Twenty-three years later, he told NPR member station KCRW that the writer who most influences fiction was a poet.


JOHNSON: Walt Whitman is definitely one of the people that I really admire. I mean, just for the largeness of his heart and the breadth and grandness of his vision. And he seemed to have the language to accommodate that.

VITALE: For most of his 20s, Johnson's own talent for language was stifled by drugs and alcohol, but by his mid-30s, he was clean and sober. In 1992, he published a book of autobiographical sketches about his drug-addled youth. "Jesus' Son" was hailed by critics and won a cult following. In 1999, it was adapted into a film. The cast included Michael Shannon playing a 21-year-old junkie with no moral compass.


MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Dundun) McInnes isn't feeling too good today.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Maybe I'll come back later.

SHANNON: (As Dundun) Don't worry. I just shot him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You mean you killed him.

SHANNON: (As Dundun) I didn't mean to.

VITALE: Shannon met Dennis Johnson on the set of "Jesus' Son" and remained friends with him until the author's death.

SHANNON: He had a deep sensitivity for people, for life. I think like a lot of artists that I admire, he found life somewhat overwhelming. And I remember his courage. You know, when he's writing these things, he's drawing from personal experience.

VITALE: Johnson could also be very funny. In a story called "Triumph Over The Grave," the narrator remembers going to the orthopedist for his bum knee while tripping on LSD.


JOHNSON: The head of orthopedics approached me. He was either a large, almost gigantic person or a person who only seemed gigantic under the circumstances.


JOHNSON: He gripped my flesh with his seething monster hands and delivered a lecture while he manipulated my lower leg and fondled the joint in preparation, I felt pretty sure, of eating me.

VITALE: In 1992, Denis Johnson said that one of his models for writing was Joseph Conrad, whose goal was to tell a story without judging the characters.


JOHNSON: He says what I want you to do is to see. If you can get the light shining out from it, then it doesn't matter how ugly it is on the surface. There's something going on underneath it if we can see it. It's the truth underlying everything, and it is the language that gets at that. I mean, it's the language that illuminates what we're seeing.

VITALE: Denis Johnson's story "Triumph Over The Grave" ends with this language. Quote, "it's plain to you at the time I write this I'm not dead but maybe by the time you read it." Johnson died of liver cancer last May at the age of 67. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


LOU REED: (Singing) When I'm rushing on my run and I feel just like Jesus' son... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.