"He doesn't ever romanticize these dark settings while leaving his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world," Englander wrote of Johnson in 2007, adding: "With dialogue that feels like you're getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work."
The same year that Englander praised him on NPR, Johnson went on to win the National Book Award for a significantly heftier work — at least in physical size. Tree of Smoke, a deep dive into covert operations during the Vietnam War, only added proof to the notion Johnson was "a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster," reviewer Alan Cheuse said at the time.
And Johnson, whose novella Train Dreams was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer, proved to be prolific both on the page and off: The author of about 20 books, including several collections of poetry, he pursued journalistic stories in Somalia and Liberia, among other places around the world.
In Liberia's capital city in 1990, the dogs were doing well "because they feed on human corpses," he wrote in "The Civil War in Hell," a piece included in the nonfiction collection Seek. "The people are starving, but the dogs have put on weight."