Remembering Denis Johnson

       by Laura Marello

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson


Many people knew him better and longer. Many can say more articulate things about his work. I always loved him so much. I remember many details of our ten months at the Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown. For those ten months, I lived two doors down from Denis Johnson in Provincetown in 1981-82 when we were both writing fellows there. Tama Janowitz lived between us.

I remember so much about it. He had not yet published his first book. He did so that spring.

When I first met him, he toasted grilled cheese sandwiches in his oven and told me and the other new FAWC fellows about overdosing on heroin and almost dying. It was a moment of gasping silence.

But he was never a scary person.

That first October, I went to the Atlantic House Halloween party dressed as him, in his leather jacket, string tie and fedora. I borrowed the clothes from him and swept my hair up into his hat.

When he won the National Book Award for Incognito Lounge, judged by Mark Strand, he and his girlfriend, the artist Susan Lyman, went to the hardware store and bought a portable stereo. Perhaps it was a tape player. I remember him carrying it up the steps.

When he was pursuing his soon-to-be second wife, Lucinda Johnson, a painter, he told me that he was “waxing,” and her outgoing boyfriend was “waning.” We were standing on the upstairs landing in front of our studio apartments, looking across the parking lot at her barn studio.

Once he suggested we travel to El Salvador together to break up marriages. “I’ll go after the wives,” he explained. “You can distract the husbands.”

My favorite books of his are his first novel, Fiskadoro, and first poetry collection The Incognito Lounge.

I love the post apocalyptic world of Fiskadoro, and the tender insights and language play of The Incognito Lounge.

Yes, my 1985 novel, published last year, is named Maniac Drifter. Peter Behrens reminded me it was a bumper sticker on DJ’s Mazda. Yes, the novel is set in Provincetown. It’s about artists.

In 1983, Denis walked me home from a party because my ex was afraid I was upset about my ex’s new girlfriend, who had opened the door when I’d arrived. That was the kind of guy Denis was. I don’t remember spending time with him after that, though I spent summers in Provincetown through 1999, and also three winters. I wrote to him a few times in Idaho. I do remember once he suggested I try for a semester teaching at UT Austin.

I’ve always loved and missed Denis.

I’ve read his books with joy and reveled in his successes. I feel privileged to have spent time with him. I’m so devastated that he’s gone.

–Laura Marello

Denis died May 24, 2017 in Gualala, California. He was sixty-seven. An American writer best known for his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992) and his novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the National Book Award for Fiction. He also wrote plays, poetry, journalism, and non-fiction.



Laura Marello has written fourteen books. Guernica Editions published Laura Marello’s second novel Tenants of the Hotel Biron in 2012 and her first novel Claiming Kin in 2010, Maniac Drifter in 2016. Tailwinds Press published Marello’s The Gender of Inanimate Objects and Other Stories and it was shortlisted for Stanford’s Saroyan Prize in 2016. Fourth novel, Gauguin’s Moon, forthcoming from Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019.

Balzac’s Robe, chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, June 25th. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown Fellowship.


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