NEW YORK — Up on the ridge above Gualala, Calif., Denis Johnson has a view of the ocean and the altitude to keep him atop the legendary Highway 1 fog. He has horses and dogs and a pond filled with catfish and trout. Soon, Johnson plans to get a pig.
"I know I'm going to get a genius pig and we're going to be great friends. They're great poets, pigs."
On Thursday, Johnson was himself recognized for his poetry and his fiction when he became one of 10 recipients of the Whiting Foundation's Whiting Writers' Awards. Totaling $250,000, the Whiting Awards program is the largest effort of individual support exclusively for writers under private auspices. This year's recipients are poets, fiction and nonfiction writers and a playwright, with ages ranging from 29 to 71.
At 37, Johnson has written three novels published by Alfred A. Knopf: "Angels" (1983), "Fiskadoro" (1985) and "The Stars at Noon," just out. "The Incognito Lounge," a book of poetry, was published by Random House in 1982, and "The Veil," a new collection of poetry, will be published next year by Knopf.
"I guess generally people call them the underbelly kind of writing," Johnson said of his poems and novels while visiting New York to receive his award. "It's pretty seamy, dark, convoluted. It's all about losers and weirdos. Nobody seems to be able to stay sober or keep out of jail."
"Fiskadoro," for example, dealt with "post-apocalyptic Florida." A new novel, about halfway completed, is set in Provincetown, Mass., where the central character is a part-time detective, part-time disc jockey. "He falls in love with a lesbian woman who jilts him," Johnson said. "He ends up shooting the bishop." A further plot summary: "It's all about being Catholic and in the Vietnam generation, that sort of thing."
Only Poet in Gualala?
Like his new protagonist, Johnson and his sculptor/painter wife Lucinda lived until quite recently on Cape Cod. But "it was getting crowded," he said, and, "On Cape Cod I got tired of the literary life." In Gualala, not far from Big Sur, "There's hardly any poets there but me as far as I know," Johnson said. "I'm ready for something less elevated."
When he and his wife decided to leave Cape Cod, "We just started heading West, and that's where we ended up."
The isolation suits him, Johnson said: "I get all the news from the chickens."
Here is how Johnson received the news of the $25,000 award that came to him out of the proverbial blue: "They called me up, told me I had it, my legs got all watery and I sat down and immediately calculated how I was going to spend all this money."
As a start, the Johnsons will remodel and move into the barn on their property. That will get them out of what Johnson describes as "the shack" they've been living in.
Also receiving Whiting Writers' Awards this year are New York City poet John Ash; Hayden Carruth, a professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of 20 books of poetry; novelist/short story writer Ken Haruf of Lincoln, Neb.; essayist Darryl Pinckney of New York.
Other winners this year are Padgett Powell, a novelist in Gainesville, Fla.; novelist/short story writer Mona Simpson of New York; poet Frank Stewart, the director of creative writing at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, poet Ruth Stone of Brandon, Vt.; and playwright August Wilson of St. Paul, Minn. Wilson's play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" won the New York Drama Critics' Award as best play of 1984-85 and was nominated for a Tony Award. His "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" opened in Boston and will be produced next year by the Seattle Repertory Theater. Wilson's "Fences" will open next year both in San Francisco and New York.
The Whiting Foundation was established in 1963 by Mrs. Giles Whiting, a leading cultural figure in the New York metropolitan area. Upon her death in 1971, Whiting left an unrestricted bequest of more than $10 million to the foundation, allowing for the establishment the following year of the Whiting Fellowships in the Humanities.
Foundation trustee Robert Pennoyer said this year's Whiting Writers' Award winners were chosen "after many months of dedicated effort by a small committee of exceptionally distinguished authors and editors." Nominators and selectors remain anonymous, with no direct contact among the program administrators and the candidates.