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Stories from a Fallen World: A Tribute to Denis Johnson

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The following is a guest post by Marie Arana, literary advisor to the Library of Congress; coordinator of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction; and the literary director of the National Book Festival. Next Wednesday, March 28, she will moderate “Stories from a Fallen World: A Tribute to Denis Johnson,” featuring Jonathan Franzen, Elliot Ackerman, Sam Quinones, and Elizabeth Cuthrell, at 7:00 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. Tickets are required

Denis Johnson, winner of the 2017 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Photo by Cindy Johnson.

Almost exactly a year ago, in March of 2017, I received a tidy little email from Denis Johnson, famously known in literary circles as “the writer’s writer’s writer” and just as famously revered by his readers as a storyteller whose works punch you somewhere between gut and heart. Earlier that day, Denis had received a telephone call from the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, informing him that he was the winner of the 2017 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Having been in on the secret here at the Library, I shot him a quick note, asking him how it felt to be celebrated so roundly by the largest, most distinguished cultural institution in the country. He was now, after all, in a literary pantheon that included Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, and Philip Roth, among others. I added that I greatly looked forward to seeing him at the prize ceremony, which would take place with great fanfare at the National Book Festival on September 2. He wrote back immediately:

Dear Marie — The list of past awardees is daunting, and I’m honored
to be in such company.  As for the book festival, the ceremony — yes,
I’d appreciate a detailed picture of what I’ve gotten myself into.  I
hope you don’t mind if we copy Nicole Aragi on our correspondence.
She is my right hand, and my left hand doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Especially when the head’s spinning from such great news — DJ

Eleven weeks later, at age 67, he was dead. Few knew how serious his condition had been. He kept the doctor’s prognosis to himself. But for years, Denis had been battling cancer. It’s clear to me now that he didn’t know whether he would be able to make it to September. Leaving a formidable body of work behind—including Angels, Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke, and, most recently, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden—he departed this life on May 24, 2017.

Denis Johnson, winner of the 2017 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Photo by Cindy Johnson.

Although the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction is meant to honor a living American author, it was awarded to him posthumously in a ceremony I dutifully tried to describe in advance, giving him a good picture of what he’d gotten himself into. I can see now, in retrospect, that he was struggling to imagine himself in that hoopla. He was an immensely private man. He didn’t like public expressions of admiration. Indeed, he had been conveniently away in Africa, reporting a story, when the 2007 National Book Award was conferred on him for his devastatingly powerful Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke. So it was that this past September, in a Festival hall packed with more than a thousand fans and broadcast subsequently to hundreds of thousands more, Nicole Aragi—his trusted right hand, agent, and dear friend—accepted the prize for him.

The hall momentarily fell silent. We all felt the loss, the recognition of greatness. As Louise Erdrich, a former awardee, put it, “I mourn Denis Johnson’s loss personally, as a reader and fellow writer. I’m glad he took pleasure in receiving this grand recognition. Everyone who reads Denis Johnson comes away thinking he has spoken directly to some wracked and ragged, yet transcendent, aspect of their own secret heart.”

On March 28, the Library of Congress will celebrate Denis Johnson’s life and work by casting the spotlight on three great American writers who are doing exemplary work in books that reflect, in strikingly different ways, themes that course through his stories. Jonathan Franzen, author of the prizewinning novel The Corrections and, most recently, Purity, will talk about the disaffected American. Elliot Ackerman, author of the acclaimed war novels Darkness at the Crossing and Green on Blue, will talk about the American warrior and veteran. Sam Quinones, author of a masterful chronicle of America’s opioid crisis, will talk about the drug epidemic and its tragic human toll. Joining the discussion will be Denis’s friend and producer of the film, Jesus’ Son, Elizabeth Cuthrell.

It is bound to be a singular gathering of extraordinary writers and artists, exemplifying what Denis did best: capturing America’s realities with an agile and forceful pen. I hope you can join us.