The Prize for American Fiction arrives tinged with sadness this year. Denis Johnson, who died in May, has been named winner of the award by the Library of Congress. His widow, Cindy Johnson, will accept the prize on his behalf during the National Book Festival in Washington on Sept. 2.
Denis Johnson was the author of many works of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, including the devastating story collection “Jesus’ Son” and the Vietnam War novel “Tree of Smoke,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Award.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden chose Johnson for the annual Prize for American Fiction in consultation with an international jury of authors and critics.
Johnson got word privately that he had won the prize in March. At the time, he wrote to Hayden, “The list of past awardees is daunting, and I’m honored to be in such company. My head’s spinning from such great news!”
Previous winners of the prize include Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo.
Johnson died of cancer on May 24 at the age of 67. This is the first time the Prize for American Fiction will be conferred posthumously.
“Denis Johnson was a writer for our times,” Hayden said Tuesday in a statement. “In prose that fused grace with grit, he spun tale after tale about our walking wounded, the demons that haunt, the salvation we seek. We emerge from his imagined world with profound empathy, a different perspective — a little changed.”
Johnson’s agent, Nicole Aragi, recalls encountering his work before she met him. “Not long after I moved to the U.S.,” she said, “a friend recommended I read ‘Jesus’ Son.’ I’d never read anything so skinless, so harsh, so tender. I had no idea that I’d get to work with him some day, that I’d get to read his words before they were published, that I’d get to pick up the phone and hear him tell a funny story — all his calls included at least one funny story.”
Hearing the news of Johnson’s posthumous honor, author George Saunders said: “He was our most poetic American short story writer since Hemingway, I think, a wonderful American descendant of the great Russian Isaac Babel, in his ability to coax out the beauty in mayhem via phrase-level discipline. In his work, attentiveness makes poetry, and darkness and light are seen to be two manifestations of the same essential life-force.”
The son of an American diplomat, Johnson was born in Munich in 1949 and spent several years of his childhood in the Washington area. He earned a master’s of fine art from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but success came slowly and only after bankruptcy and considerable agony. His first books — novels and collections of poetry — sold poorly. He struggled grievously with alcohol, heroin and other substances. In 1993 he told The Washington Post that the harrowing stories in “Jesus’ Son” were largely autobiographical.
With that collection, however, his career accelerated rapidly. Several of the stories had appeared in the New Yorker and “Best American Short Stories.” The book was later adapted into a film starring Billy Crudup.
His novella “Train Dreams” (2012) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but in a cruel twist of fate, the Pulitzer board declined to award the fiction prize that year.
Johnson’s most recent book, “The Laughing Monsters,” was published in 2014, and Random House plans to release his second collection of stories next January.
The Prize for American Fiction honors an American writer whose body of work “is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but also for its originality of thought and imagination.” As part of the Library of Congress National Book Festival, the award presentation will be open to the public at the Washington Convention Center on Sept. 2. The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the festival, which is funded by corporate sponsors and private donors, led by David M. Rubenstein, the National Book Festival board co-chairman.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
The Library of Congress National Book Festival will be held Sept. 2 at the Washington Convention Center. loc.gov/bookfest.