Last night, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction. Coincidentally, last night it also arrived at my apartment in a cardboard box stamped with Amazon.com's logo.
Denis Johnson may be the best author nobody's ever heard of. He's written seven plays, several books of poetry, and seven previous novels, the most famous of which are slim, obscure, and full of beautiful prose. If you've heard of any of them, its probably Fiskadoro. (See? Nobody's heard of him.) He is probably best known for the short story collection Jesus' Son, which was turned into a critically acclaimed and successful independent film starring Jack Black, Billy Crudup, Holly Hunter and Denis Leary .
The renowned critic Harold Bloom considers him to be one of the great living American authors, and a whole host of famous writers, including John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, have sung his praises in print. Franzen goes so far as to say that his sole criteria for evaluating the quality of a bookstore is whether they stock Denis Johnson. Think about that for a minute - despite his critical acclaim, he is obscure enough that several mainstream bookstores - Waldenbooks, for example - don't stock his books, and even some excellent bookstores, such as Borders, carry only one or two of his titles. Some critics - such as B.R. Myers in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, have suggested that, though Johnson is a 'writer's writer,' he's not a 'reader's writer.' There are probably some authors of whom that is true (Anne Carson comes to mind immediately), but it is patently untrue of Johnson. If there's any justice, the success of Tree of Smoke will ensure serious readers will never have to search in vain for Denis Johnson books again.
P.S. If you're interested in buying a copy of Tree of Smoke, use the advertisement on this page to put it into your Amazon.com shopping cart, and Amazon will kick a dollar or two over to us as a commission.