Denis Johnson writes about lost souls, who have faint hopes of finding, if not God, at least some meaning in their lives. His themes and violent descriptions echo the works of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Stone, two of his major influences. Johnson portrays the marginal in American society: the addicts, alcoholics, homeless, beggars, and crooks, as well as those who simply cannot or will not adapt to mainstream culture, a culture that itself is crumbling and has helped create the characters it rejects. Johnson’s characters seem able to survive on hope and human resilience, no matter how outcast or alienated they may be. Ultimately, Johnson’s themes are metaphysical. The alienation of his characters implies a someone or a something from which to be alienated.
Johnson’s finely detailed works are often episodic and surreal but told in a colloquial, almost intimate manner. He balances a wry detachment from his characters with a tenderness for even the most criminal of them. Johnson’s narrators are often addicts. Therefore, the narrator’s voice is alternately dreamy and brutally factual, shifting from a detachment, which speaks casually of bullets and blood, to an unexpected, intimate recognition of the characters’ common humanity. The sudden intrusion of compassion in otherwise cold narratives has the effect of producing both Christlike and pathological states within the same character.
By juxtaposing fact and fantasy, realism and...
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