The Library of Congress celebrated the life and work of the late Denis Johnson—2017 winner of its highest literary honor, the Prize for American Fiction—with a tribute Wednesday where renowned writers, a filmmaker, and his wife recalled with respect and affection his painfully beautiful stories drawn from life “in a fallen world.”
Johnson’s lifetime of work offered “a fusion of honesty and seriousness, pain and laughter,” said Jane McAuliffe, the Library’s director of national and international outreach, leading off the evening program.
Maria Arana, the Library’s literary advisor who directs the panel selecting the annual honoree, described Johnson’s characters: "the drug addicts, and war veterans, the disaffected and those used up and left behind.... His stories land like a punch somewhere between the gut and the heart.”
Arana recalled a March 2017 conversation, two months before his death from liver cancer at age 69, when she told him he was the 10th winner of the annual award. “‘My head is spinning,’ he said.”
Arana, who moderated Wednesday’s event, said the John W. Kluge Center at the Library decided that “the best way to celebrate a man with a gimlet-eyed view of the world is to turn the focus to great storytellers” who, like Johnson, tell stories of marginality and dysfunction and can share how valuable fiction can be to understanding reality.
One by one, novelists Jonathan Franzen and Elliot Ackerman, non-fiction writer Sam Quinones, and independent film and theatrical producer Elizabeth Cuthrell spoke of his influence, insights, humor, and friendship.
Franzen, who once said “the God I want to believe in has a voice like Johnson’s,” recalled the first time he was rocked by the exquisite precision of Johnson’s style. In “The Car Crash,” a story from Johnson’s 1992 collection Jesus’ Son, a woman sees a head-on collision coming: “‘No!’ the woman said viciously.”
And Franzen, a National Book Award winner himself (The Corrections, 2001) spoke of the “lucky readers” who are able to enjoy a completely dark book and laugh at things others could find terrible. “Fiction enables [a writer] to exaggerate in wild ways state of mine, emotional states and lots of other kinds of states that mere representation cannot,” he said.
Decorated Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Elliot Ackerman, a finalist for the National Book Award for the second of his two novels (Dark at the Crossing, 2017), lauded Johnson’s ability to slide from the banal to a bank robbery, to slip through the “translucent membrane” between love and violence. “People do to war for reasons they may not even know themselves,” Ackerman said, reflecting on Johnson’s work and his own combat experience.
Quinones, who had written for the Los Angeles Times and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Dreamland (2015), addressed the nation’s opioid crisis. One of the themes of the evening was to draw connections between fiction by Johnson, a former addict, and today’s anxious times. “Our deep and profound isolation, our loss of community,” has left Americans defenseless to the flood of drugs’ false promise of chemical peace and private joy, Quinones said. “We all want to be immune and no one wants to be accountable.”
And yet, Cuthrell reminded the audience of about 250, Johnson—in prose and in person—was a great friend and, at heart, very funny. Whenever she saw her “profoundly kind’ friend, Cuthrell said, “something in me would always get rearranged.”
He showed up to their first meeting to discuss the script for her first film adapting one his books, Jesus' Son, wearing an aloha shirt, red shoes, and Elvis-style glasses held together with tape. Did he want to play a character in the movie, she asked. Only if he played the man with the knife in his eye, he replied.
And so he did. She played the clip Wednesday night of Johnson, delivering his lines deadpan to a shocked nurse and actors Jack Black and Billy Crudup, who played hospital attendants hallucinating on drugs pilfered from the pharmacy.
Several speakers also acknowledged Random House, which published Johnson’s last collection of stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, in January, to ecstatic reviews.
Johnson’s widow, Cindy Lee, called Johnson “the most beautiful man I ever saw,” comparing his adventurous outlook to that of a “modern-day Tom Sawyer.” As proof of his adventurous nature, she said, he applied to NASA to the enter astronaut corps.
Luckily, for his readers—and for these authors and more—he stuck to the page instead.