Original 1st Edition of ‘Angels’ Cover illustration: Donald McPherson. Photograph: Lucinda Johnson. Signed: w/thanks for your interest'.’
I met Denis Johnson on 14th March 1984, one month after I’d interviewed Kathy Acker. At that time Johnson would have been 25 and had written three books of poetry. ‘Angels’ was his first novel , published in the UK by Chatto & Windus. Denis was in town to do press and I met him at some smart service flat in Central London. I wish I could say I remember all the details (I don’t) but fortunately I do have the original cassette tape as a perfect aide-mémoire. I don’t think the interview was ever published.
‘Angels’ starts on a Greyhound bus out of Oakland. Jamie has left her husband with Miranda and Baby Ellen. She falls into conversation with Bill Houston. Here’s one of Jamie’s first observations of Bill:
‘When he packed his wraparound sunglasses back onto the bridge of his nose with his thumb, his shirtsleeves rose with the movement to reveal a tattoo on his triceps of a single naked breast cupped in two disembodied hands. ”Let me guess. I bet your name is Louise.”
That’s where the trouble starts and it gets darker from then on. This is a raw story with real smart dialogue, told with elegance and precision. A journey into the bleak side. It impressed me at the time and on the reread.
I picked up a second-hand uncorrected proof copy of Johnson’s novel ‘Train Dreams’ [first published in 2002 and republished by Granta Books 2012] and read it straight through in a few hours. At 110pp its a novella that’s perfectly shaped and weighted. We see the history of 20th century America through the life of one man, Robert Grainier, a day labourer in the pioneering times of the West. Its a joy.
So what happened after ‘Angels’? Johnson wrote eight other novels including ‘Tree of Smoke’ which won the National Book Award, more poetry books and one work of nonfiction: ‘Safe: Reports from the Edge of America & Beyond’.
A short story collection ‘Jesus’Son’ was made into a movie and is the book that made his name.
According to an article in New York magazine: ‘Denis Johnson's acclaimed 1992 collection of short stories about a drug-demented American grifter…earned him cult status as the quintessential "writer's writer," spiritual heir to William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Dylan Thomas -- and inspiration to younger writers like Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, and George Saunders.’
Described by them as ‘famously reclusive’, he has also written several plays and is a Resident Playwright for the Campo Santo theatre company in San Francisco.’ [More details on Wikipedia]