Johnson, Denis (Short Story Criticism)
Denis Johnson 1949–-
American short story writer, novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's short fiction career through 2001.
Johnson is recognized for his compelling depictions of isolated, degraded individuals who strive to attain spiritual fulfillment or transcendence in the margins of American society. Johnson's short fiction has earned distinction for the hallucinatory quality of his writing, his poetic, carefully constructed language, and the misfit, often drug-addicted or mentally unstable characters who provide honest, unsentimental insight into the lurid underside of contemporary American life. His reputation as a short fiction writer rests on the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Jesus' Son (1992) and his novella The Name of the World (2000).
Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, on July 1, 1949, the son of an American diplomat, and lived in various foreign countries as a child and adolescent. The exotic locales of Tokyo and Manila and the rootlessness of his family's existence later provided Johnson thematic fodder as an author. Johnson completed his high school education in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1967. Already an aspiring writer, he applied to the University of Iowa, well known for its creative writing program, where he completed his bachelor's degree in 1971. He earned his M.F.A. in 1974 under the tutelage of poet Marvin Bell. Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals (1969), at the age of nineteen, while still an undergraduate. After leaving Iowa, Johnson taught briefly at Lake Forest College in Chicago but, finding academic life unsatisfying, he resigned and left for the Pacific Northwest, where he worked odd jobs in the Seattle area. After the publication of his second poetry collection, Inner Weather (1976), Johnson sought treatment for alcohol and heroin addiction. He subsequently worked as a teacher at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, then, after receiving a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1981, he resettled in Cape Cod. During the mid-1980s, Johnson relocated to Gualala, California; in 1989, he found a new home in northern Idaho near the Kanishu National Forest. Johnson maintains a strong interest in contemporary music and film and has acknowledged the influence of musicians Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, and painter Edward Hopper. He has received much recognition for his writing, including a National Poetry Series award for The Incognito Lounge (1982); an American Academy Kaufman prize for Angels (1983); the Whiting Foundation award in 1986; a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993; and, in 2001, a PEN/Faulkner award nomination for The Name of the World. The latter was also listed as one of the website Salon's ten best fiction books of 2000. Johnson's 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, was made into a feature-length film, directed by Alison Maclean, in 1999.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Johnson's short fiction is characterized by its lively language and structure as well as its emotional intensity. His writing is fraught with often nightmarish or apocalyptic images of isolation and desolation and delves into themes of redemption and spiritual rebirth. His characters, who tend to live on the fringes of society, are violent, maimed, mentally unstable, or desperate. Jesus' Son is a collection of eleven interconnected short stories; all are narrated by the same unnamed (known only as Fuckhead) alcoholic heroin addict, though they take place in various settings and describe the narrator's assorted derelict friends. The title of the collection is derived from a lyric in the Lou Reed song “Heroin.” The characters in the nightmarish stories are all addicted in various ways, either to substances such as alcohol and narcotics, or belief systems such as popular culture or religion. Drugs and alcohol serve as virtually the only constants in the narrator's life. The settings of the stories vary—from rural Iowa to Seattle to Phoenix—as do the narrator's friends, and the reader learns nothing about his past. The narrator reveals himself exclusively through his words and his various incarnations. The characters who surround him are an assortment of lowlifes and losers, inhabitants of a bleak and often violent American demimonde. One of the most striking features of the stories in Jesus' Son is the incantatory, dreamlike quality of the narrator's voice. Although nearly every story recounts a gruesome or sensational incident—a horrific car accident, a bizarre emergency room case, a pointless shooting—the narrator's voice remains consistently matter-of-fact throughout the book. The novella The Name of the World focuses on a university professor's efforts to move forward with his life following the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident. For the first few years after the tragedy, the professor, Michael Reed, is existing rather than living. His experiences are punctuated by recurring encounters with an unconventional young woman—a cellist and stripper named Flower Cannon—who reminds Reed of his lost wife and daughter. At the novel's conclusion, Reed becomes a journalist and travels to cover the U.S. Gulf War, in an effort to escape his memories—or delusions—of the past. Both Jesus' Son and The Name of the World (as well as Johnson's novels and poetry) utilize the motif of dereliction and resuscitation for dramatic importance: “To go on living and to understand the past,” Johnson has stated, “is like taking up another life. It is like waking up after your death and being able to look back and understand.”
Critics consider Johnson a gifted short fiction writer. His only collection of short stories, Jesus' Son, has been commended for both its realistic and dreamlike portrayal of America's underbelly. Several critics also praise Johnson's lyrical language and his adept use of metaphor and wordplay. The autobiographical nature of the stories has been another topic of critical discussion. Despite the bizarre psychological states and circumstances that Johnson often evokes in his fiction, many reviewers note the author's uncanny ability to render such absurdity entirely plausible through his engaging storytelling and credible dialogue. Critics also laud the compassion with which Johnson treats his drunk, neglected, insane, or otherwise depraved characters. His novella, The Name of the World, has also inspired favorable reviews. Commentators deem the short novel raw and introspective and applaud Johnson's sensitive portrayal of grief and renewal.
Jesus' Son 1992
The Name of the World 2000
The Man among the Seals (poetry) 1969
Inner Weather (poetry) 1976
The Incognito Lounge (poetry) 1982
Angels (novel) 1983
Fiskadoro (novel) 1985
The Stars at Noon (novel) 1986
The Veil (poetry) 1987
Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (novel) 1991
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems, Collected and New (poetry) 1995
Already Dead: A California Gothic (novel) 1997
Hellhound on My Trail (play) 2000
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond (nonfiction) 2001
Hellhound on My Trail (play) 2000
Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames (play) 2001
Shoppers: Two Plays (plays) 2002
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SOURCE: Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Kirkus Reviews 60, no. 19 (1 October 1992): 1206-07.
[In the following review of Jesus' Son, the anonymous critic maintains that “Johnson's beautifully damned stories sing with divine poetry, all the while bludgeoning us with existential reality.”]
Johnson (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, 1991; Fiskadoro, 1985 etc.) brings together eleven down-and-out stories [in Jesus' Son] linked by their disagreeable narrator—a lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption.
Gobbling whatever drugs he can, the nameless narrator witnesses a fatal car wreck while hitchhiking and experiences a strange euphoria. His highs can be sharp, edgy, and intense, resulting in casual violence and emotional disconnectedness (“Dundun”); or sluggish, as he threatens to nod out before our eyes. At a local gin mill (“Out on Bail”) with his fellow losers, he ponders arbitrary fate among those who fancy themselves “tragic” and “helpless.” After shooting heroin with his girlfriend at a Holiday Inn, he finds his “mother” in an angelic barmaid (“Work”). There's plenty of drug-induced surrealism as well: a stranger,...
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SOURCE: Kakutani, Michiko. “Stories That Range from Bleak to Bleaker.” New York Times (11 December 1992): C31.
[In the following review, Kakutani commends Johnson's poetic language and utilization of metaphor and wordplay in the stories in Jesus' Son.]
The characters in Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson's savage new collection of stories, which takes its title from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” are all lost souls, waiting eagerly or despondently for salvation. Like their counterparts in Fiskadoro and Angels, they are sinners and misfits, the lost, the damned, the desperate and the forgotten. Out of their bleak, frightening experiences, Mr. Johnson manages to extract a harsh, lovely poetry; in their violent, seemingly random lives, he is able to find modern-day parables that glow with a strange, radioactive light.
The narrator of these interlinked stories is a young, unnamed man, reeling from his addiction to heroin and alcohol, his mind at once clouded and made gorgeously lucid by these drugs. Dreams blur into real life for this man, hallucinations mimic and merge with reality: a state of affairs that gives Mr. Johnson ample opportunity to display his dazzling gift for poetic language, his natural instinct for metaphor and wordplay.
A hailstorm turns a town into a religious vision, full of “green silence” and ankle-deep piles of “white, buoyant...
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SOURCE: McManus, James. “The Road from Detox.” New York Times Book Review 97, no. 12 (27 December 1992): 5.
[In the following favorable assessment, McManus provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Jesus' Son.]
Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is his fifth book of fiction, the previous four being novels with similar preoccupations: loveless promiscuity, the abuse of narcotics and alcohol, the debilitating effects of parental neglect and the sometimes violent paradoxes inherent in the Christian notions of salvation and self-sacrifice. His prose, especially in this book and in the novels Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, consistently generates imagery of ferocious intensity, much of it shaded with a menacing, even deranged sense of humor. No American novelist since William Burroughs has so flagrantly risked “insensitivity” in an effort to depict the pathology of addiction.
In nearly every respect Jesus' Son can be more accurately described as a novel than as a collection of stories. The same unnamed young drifter narrates each of the book's 11 chapterlike sections, only six or seven of which can stand as discrete, coherent short stories; each is most fully understood in the context of earlier or subsequent sections. The narrator also makes distinctly novelistic progress as he staggers from habit to addiction—passively participating along the way...
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SOURCE: Wiggins, Marianne. “Talk into My Bullet Hole.” Nation 256, no. 6 (15 February 1993): 208-09.
[In the following positive assessment of Jesus' Son, Wiggins asserts that reading Johnson's stories “is like living inside someone else's beautifully controlled nightmare.”]
In his 1980 Nobel Laureate speech, Czeslaw Milosz cautioned writers that it is not enough to denounce those who would align themselves with misanthropes and tyrants, but that we must broadcast the names of those from whom we have learned, in whom we have trusted and about whom we are reverent, whether as teachers and practitioners of art or as acquaintances through life.
Milosz's larger canvas, of course, in making this remark, was his attempt to paint a map from memory about how memory must work, and about how we, as humans and as writers, must force our memories into existence; how we must not allow the work of writers who have touched upon our lives to be forgotten, or to fade; how we must engage in the mnemonic exercise, if nothing else, of speaking out their names. So, like a cartoon figure in a trench coat with stolen watches, I am always flashing names of favorite writers at my friends. Then imagine that someone passes me a diamond Rolex, gratis. This Rolex's name is Denis Johnson. His book is called Jesus' Son.
Jesus' Son is Johnson's first volume of short...
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SOURCE: Grimson, Todd. “Don't Wake Him Up—He's Writing.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 February 1993): 3, 7.
[In the following laudatory assessment, Grimson regards Jesus' Son as Johnson's “most accessible and accomplished book, from start to finish, without a single sentence that misses the mark.”]
Denis Johnson writes as though he inhabits a waking dream. There is that wonderful sense of someone walking around in his own unconscious—you don't want to wake him up. There's plenty of knowledge of the outside world, he knows very well what's going on out here, but his intelligence, at its deepest, may be an animal intelligence. That is, an intelligence that feels, that intuits, that apprehends immediately without having to think. He is inspired, in the truest sense of that once-potent, even dangerous word.
Jesus' Son is Johnson's fifth book of fiction. Technically, it's a book of short stories, but the stories all feature the same narrator stuck in the same Midwestern-underbelly lowlife milieu. The separate pieces add to each other, cross-reference and cohere enough to form a novel, albeit perhaps not one in conventional narrative form, with a beginning, middle and end. Yet Jesus' Son is as much a novel as, for instance, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award a few years back....
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SOURCE: Gates, David. “A Family's Darkest Secret: Inside the Domestic Bonds of Love and Brutality.” Newsweek 121, no. 6 (February 1993): 67.
[In the following excerpt, Gates offers a positive assessment of Jesus' Son.]
In Jesus' Son, Idaho-based Denis Johnson's masterfully bleak sequence of short stories narrated by a young heartland lowlife, brutality is unpredictable and unremarkable: shootings, stabbings, guns held to heads, heroin overdoses, gruesome car wrecks—and confrontations that don't turn violent only because the antagonists can't stay focused. But scarier still is when the narrator betrays his chronic state of hallucinatory befuddlement. “It was a Polish neighborhood somewhere or other,” he tells us at one point in his wanderings. “The Polish neighborhoods have that snow. They have that fruit with the light on it, they have that music you can't find.”
As in Johnson's 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, everybody's in that shape. His narrator goes to buy opium, and finds one friend shot by another; they'd started for the hospital but ran into a shed: “Everything was completely out of hand.” Automobiles are bumpcars, a psychiatric ward is a “playpen” with “Haldol by the quart.” As grunge sociology, Jesus' Son is claustrophobic; as art, it's exhilarating. Johnson has hit on the right tone—surreally inarticulate—and right...
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SOURCE: Miles, Jack. “An Artist of American Violence.” Atlantic 271, no. 6 (June 1993): 121-27.
[In the following positive assessment of Jesus' Son, Miles contends that Johnson succeeds in turning American crime and violence into fragmented, poetic prose.]
Denis Johnson, who began as a poet, has found a new, poetically charged way to turn American violence into prose fiction. To link his work even loosely with crime fiction, as a few reviewers have done, is to mislead the reader. His work has nothing in common with lurid re-creations of “true crime,” that overgrown bastard child of journalism, and little or nothing in common with the fiction of even the best conventional crime novelists. Johnson's subject is broader than theirs. It is not just crime but American violence, including drug addiction less as a crime than as a self-inflicted wound, and including disturbed sexual and social relations even when they fall short of crime. He finds wild, delicate, jolting language for the psychological dislocation and panicky anger of people left at the bottom of American society, outclassed by it, baffled, crushed. Johnson preserves, without sentimentalizing, the voice and perspective of these people and seduces his readers into an intimacy with them that is the more disturbing because of his refusal to make them conventionally appealing.
Violent criminals are not, by and large,...
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SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “Holy Drunkalogs.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4709 (2 July 1993): 23.
[In the following review, Sutherland traces the theme of substance abuse in Jesus' Son, asserting that “Johnson comes across as a fourth-generation Beat.”]
Denis Johnson's title is taken from Lou Reed's song “Heroin”—“When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' Son.” What follows is a bundle of short stories all of which revolve obsessively around drugs and booze. Stylistically, Johnson comes across as fourth-generation Beat, following the substance-abuse line that descends from Kerouac, through Burroughs and Charles Bukowski to the films of Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho). The eleven stories in Jesus' Son are narrated by a nameless young addict who drifts from Chicago, to Iowa, to Seattle (where he seems happiest) to Arizona. Sometimes he works as an orderly in the Emergency Room of a hospital—where he and a disorderly buddy raid the pharmacy for drugs. Sometimes he burgles. At one point, he is in love with a belly dancer called Angelique. On another occasion, he clumsily tries to set up adultery with a woman, two days married, but somehow they are too drunk to get to bed.
Sometimes the hero is high, sometimes nodding, most times strung out. There is no sequence to the stories. A character called Hotel ODs in one...
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SOURCE: Donnelly, Daria. “Flannery O'Connor in Reverse.” Commonweal 120, no. 14 (13 August 1993): 23-4.
[In the following favorable assessment of Jesus' Son, Donnelly determines the influence of Flannery O'Connor's “spiritual vocation for the grotesque” on Johnson's work.]
The fantasy: poet-novelist Denis Johnson screeches up to Flannery O'Connor's door in his “Maniac Drifter”-emblazoned sports car; they head off to noon Mass followed by comic, wild, and satisfying conversation. The reality: Denis Johnson has been carrying on an edgy romance with Catholicism and O'Connor ever since the demonic rapist Ned Higher-and-Higher appeared in his first novel, Angels, to upstage in a sense O'Connor's malevolent violet-eyed stranger from The Violent Bear It Away.
Johnson's most recent book, Jesus' Son, owes much to O'Connor's spiritual vocation for the grotesque. The kinds of Catholic images that dominated his fourth novel, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, reemerge here. These sacramental images both hover at the edge of the parodic and are genuinely moving, as when rosary-clutching pro-life demonstrators in one story anoint the narrator with holy water as he emerges from an abortion clinic fleeing “the canceled life dreaming after” him: “and I didn't feel a thing. Not for many years.”
Johnson is an unsparing, comic, and...
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SOURCE: McGuiness, Daniel. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 405-06.
[In the following laudatory review of Jesus' Son, McGuiness finds a similarity between Johnson's verse and his short fiction.]
Denis Johnson's career seems somehow geometrical, graphable, perhaps parabolic: the poems at the start, the novels in the middle, the short stories lately. Whether the parabola sweeps to an apogee or drops like your phoneline under the weight of snow is a matter of personal taste, but the line's start and stop do, nonetheless, figure into something like equilibrium. It's the same blighted landscape of addiction, reckless rock-and-roll love, and the benighted days of the American underclass that we return to in these new stories. It is perhaps no accident that Johnson's other work lately has been in journalism: quirky, apocalyptic reports from the civil war in Liberia and the recent American escapades in the Persian Gulf. He now lives, we are told, in the land of the survivalists in rural Idaho. In reportage, verse, or fictions, his thesis is always the same: it's a spiritual jungle out there where the human soul darts like helpless prey into the crosshairs of politics and all the -ologies that think they've figured us out.
Think of his protagonists in the four novels he wrote to get through the Reagan era: a drifter/bank...
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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. Review of The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones and Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Boston Review 18, no. 5 (October-November 1993): 30.
[In the following review of Jesus' Son, Birkerts contrasts the narrative style of Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest and Johnson's Jesus' Son to that of the American writer Raymond Carver.]
Prose styles, like hemlines, serve as an obscure barometer of changes in the cultural life. A barometer because they are in some way linked to the larger atmosphere (the Zeitgeist), and obscure because no one can quite determine how. We've come a long way since the days when Hemingway's clipped diction was universally understood as representing a generation's retraction of soul before the violence of history. Literary styles are now many and various, pitched to coterie audiences. Writers tend to work in the vein of: in the vein of Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon or Ann Beattie or Douglas Coupland. …
If we still have anything like a dominant contemporary mode it is probably the one derived from the stories of the late Raymond Carver. Unadorned and understated, lyrical but grim, this prose is a fanfare for the common man, a heart-music of diminished expectations:
My wife brought me up here the first time. That's when we were still together, trying to make things work...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Denis. “Secret Agent.” In Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, edited by Will Blythe, pp. 98-102. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1998.
[In the following essay, Johnson reflects on the role of observing and reporting in his life.]
I'm remembering a time in Chicago. Down around Jefferson Street, some ways below the Loop. I couldn't even guess how far below now, twenty-one, -two, -three years later. This was the very bad wino district around 4:00 a.m. People without soul or spirit slept against walls or right in the gutter, as they'd been warned they might someday if they kept on … and they'd kept on. This dark morning I'd come here to find work in the day-labor gangs the state employment people formed on weekdays, but I sensed I'd be living here, too, someday, and I observed electrically and sadly my future all around me, people with dull faces nodding like toys and fingering the tatters of their clothes and exploring their lips with their tongues. Soon one place opened for business in the neighborhood, a giant tavern with big windows and no name—just a white marquee running the whole length of the building, reading Shot and a Beer 25¢. I recall it now, this place, as an island of horrific light. It was illuminated inside with fluorescent ceiling lamps and jammed with people who moved around as if they were all on fire. I didn't go in. A bum woke up in the gutter right...
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SOURCE: Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Kirkus Reviews 68, no. 10 (15 May 2000): 655.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of The Name of the World.]
A traumatized widower is painfully and gradually recalled to life in this deceptively simple—and surprisingly absorbing—short novel [The Name of the World] by the well-known poet and author (Already Dead, 1997, etc.).
Narrator Michael Reed is a freelance writer and teacher of history who's attempting to lose himself in work—and various degrees of intimacy with colleagues (at a nameless Midwestern college where he had recently put down roots) and random acquaintances—after his young wife and small daughter are killed in an automobile accident. Johnson precisely delineates how Michael experiences and absorbs “little” everyday manifestations of survival and commitment—in such nonspecific ephemera as the carnival atmosphere of student life (“whoops and laughter like the cries of wildlife”), a shoe shine, an impulsive visit to a strip joint, even a quiet few moments at a religious fellowship's “Sing Night,” where he observes a dreamy deaf boy who seemingly “hears” the music. We gradually understand how he saves himself by becoming interested and—albeit only marginally—involved in other people's lives, particularly that of the improbably...
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SOURCE: Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 20 (15 May 2000): 86.
[In the following positive review of The Name of the World, the anonymous commentator contends that “Johnson's eloquent examination of one man's persistent inability to extricate himself from the tenacity of grief manages to be both lyrical and raw.”]
Spare, introspective and arresting, Johnson's (Jesus' Son; Already Dead) new novel [The Name of the World] explores a middle-aged college professor's attempts to come to terms with the gruesome twist of fate that has robbed him of his family. After losing his wife, Anne, and daughter, Elsie, in a tragic automobile accident, ex-political speechwriter Mike Reed seeks refuge in the insular world of academia. Cloistered deep in the bosom of an unnamed Midwestern university, he teaches history, halfheartedly tries to obtain a research grant and reflects morosely on his losses. In episodic vignettes, Mike fails to impress his departmental superiors with his professorial aptitude, visits a Native American casino where he gets involved in a pointless barroom imbroglio, and becomes obsessed with the eccentric but spirited Flower Cannon, a sexy red-headed student/performance-artist/cellist/stripper. Johnson depicts Mike's emotional paralysis and anguished bouts of uncertain self-exploration with pellucid clarity and...
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SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 June 2000): 11.
[In the following review, Reynolds differentiates The Name of the World from the rest of Johnson's oeuvre.]
Maybe you're already a member of the cult of Denis Johnson, joined when you first read Jesus' Son (coming this month to theaters near you). Then, perhaps, you were grateful when he wrote Already Dead, the funny but not ridiculous portrait of hippies in Northern California. It was so much fun to read. But more important even than fun is that Johnson, in his fiction, makes you nostalgic for something in yourself, some lost country in your soul that you have almost forgotten. Usually, he has the decency to cover up this invasion of your privacy with humor.
But this book is different. The Name of the World reinvents everything, even good manners. The flap copy promises funny, but that's for cowards, God bless 'em. Michael Reed is a professor at a small Midwestern college whose 34-year-old wife and 5-year-old daughter have been killed in a car crash. The novel covers the period, a few years after the initial shock, when Reed tries to find his place again, tries to feel something, anything. “I was grieving for someone who was dead,” he thinks, “and death is such a physical thing. … I didn't want physical things.” He has managed to stave off his grief...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
SOURCE: Stone, Robert. “In Transit.” New York Times Book Review (9 July 2000): 5.
[In the following positive assessment, Stone explores the narrative line of The Name of the World.]
The jacket of Denis Johnson's new novel displays what might be a road or a set of railroad tracks disappearing into a whited-out middle distance. The road out of town has always been a major element in Johnson's work. His characters—often drifters, self-educated intellectual outlaws, vagabond poets—take their places beside the Old Highway in the dew-scented dawn or the early morning rain. Down the road ahead they find runic messages, brief encounters charged with elusive significance, random violence, masked providence. The Name of the World is, in some ways, a departure for Johnson in that its protagonist is a relatively solid citizen. Circumstance, however, has rendered him just one more uncertain counter in life's brutal Snakes and Ladders. He becomes yet another traveler on the American Road, that eternally recurring model for life, celebrated, lyricized and deplored by so many American authors in the years since World War II.
The narrative line of a novel can be usefully compared to vehicles of locomotion. An American novel of the Road School is a Chevy on the freeway out of San Berdoo, the lounge on some surviving cross-country train, a pink-and-fuchsia bumper car in a weirdly lighted...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Ever-Widening Circles of Grief.” New York Times (14 July 2000): E37.
[In the following mixed review, Eder discusses the fragmentary nature of The Name of the World and questions the role of deliverance in the novel.]
There are a yellowed globe and an antique telescope in the living room of Ted MacKey, the chairman of the music department at a Midwestern college. They are elements of a mellow scholarly décor in which the guests sip hot buttered rum by a blazing log fire. It is Currier & Ives does academe, or, as Michael, an adjunct professor and the shattered narrator, remarks in The Name of the World, “a very expensive gift shop.”
It is a fine, acid phrase. The décor comes in more suggestively in Michael's comment about some of his older colleagues regularly dusting off “the lectures they'd been dragging out … since the days when Ted MacKey's big beige globe had known what it was talking about.”
In Denis Johnson's fiction, the world no longer knows what it is talking about, and its denizens' heads are filled with babble. It and they are fragmented, though the fragmentation varies from book to book. It is an outright post-apocalyptic vision in Fiskadoro, his finest work. Fragmentation is intricate social and personal disarray in the charming if doleful picaresque of Resuscitation of a Hanged...
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SOURCE: “Perfect Pitch.” Economist (15 July 2000): S12.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic lauds the tone and pace of The Name of the World.]
It isn't easy to recommend spending ＄23 on 120 widely spaced pages, but there's a reason why literature is not sold by the kilo. In his ninth novel [The Name of the World], Denis Johnson purposefully takes on a slight plot, or what would seem slight, unless it happened to you. Having wandered from high-school teaching to senatorial speech-writing, in late middle age the narrator, Michael Reed, has forsaken Washington for the comfortably meaningless confines of an unremarkable, nameless Midwestern college.
Four years before, his younger wife and only child were killed in a car crash. In consequence, his attachments to the world have come unglued. The accident's specifics were unexceptional: Michael had entrusted his family to the care of a frail, elderly driver. Yet his thoughts of the tragedy rip “perpetually around a track like dogs after a mechanised rabbit”. After all, most deaths are mundane. Their very unfittingness, their refusal to offer up lessons or poignancy, can make them all the more painful to accommodate.
More accurately a novella, this short work has an unhurried, inviting pace. Now an unassuming adjunct history professor, Michael delineates a series of minor events—a faculty dinner...
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SOURCE: Updike, John. “Dog's Tears.” New Yorker 76, no. 120 (24 July 2000): 76-8.
[In the following review, Updike unfavorably compares The Name of the World to Johnson's earlier work, especially Jesus' Son.]
There is a kind of radiant prose, sparking in short circuits, that can be achieved only through a point of view that is youthful and stoned:
I stood outside the motel hitchhiking, dressed up in a hurry, shirtless under my jacket, with the wind crying through my earring. A bus came. I climbed aboard and sat on the plastic seat while the things of our city turned in the windows like the images in a slot machine.
It was a Polish neighborhood somewhere or other. The Polish neighborhoods have that snow. They have that fruit with the light on it, they have that music you can't find. We ended up in a laundromat, where the guy took off his shirt and put it in a washer.
The sky was a bruised red shot with black, almost exactly the colors of a tattoo. Sunset had two minutes left to live.
These quotations are from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, a 1992 collection of short stories that was recently made into a motion picture. Though the book is short, it offers a definitive description of a certain world, a drug...
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SOURCE: Gates, David. “What's in a Name?” Newsweek CXXXVI, no. 5 (31 July 2000): 64.
[In the following review, Gates offers a favorable assessment of The Name of the World.]
Near the end of Denis Johnson's haunting novella, The Name of the World, the narrator says an odd thing. Our century, he says, “has torn its way out of its chrysalis and become too beautiful to be examined, too alive to be debated and exploited by played-out intellectuals. The important thing is no longer to predict in what way its grand convulsions might next shake us. Now the important thing is to ride it into the sky.” I've read this book three times, with my played-out intellect cranked up to 10, and I still can't exactly say what this has to do with the story of a man in free-fall since losing his wife and young daughter in a car crash. A metaphor for how he might get on with his own life? But it also sounds like a metaphor for the book itself and how we might read it.
Johnson's best work—“Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” for instance, in his 1992 story collection Jesus' Son—often takes a sudden skyward leap, powered by his intuition. You find yourself pulling G's—your intellect wants to stay earthbound—then looking down in wonderment. That's what happens in the last three pages of The Name of the World: the narrator has changed his life, he's looking down from a helicopter...
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SOURCE: Yuzna, Susan. “Reading My Life Between the Lines.” The Washington Post (13 August 2000): B2.
[In the following essay, Yuzna reflects on her relationship with Johnson and her role in the short story collection Jesus' Son.]
How should you act when you meet yourself as a fictional character? What do you say? Do you embrace yourself warmly, or pretend you've never met?
Her name is Michelle. She's the girlfriend in the new movie based on Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son. I haven't met Michelle on the screen yet (the film hasn't opened in North Dakota, where I now live) and haven't made up my mind whether I want to, but I've met her in print.
The first time was in 1988, when I opened the New Yorker to find a story by Denis. He and I had been a couple at the time in which the story was set, and the protagonist's girlfriend was unmistakably based on me. Actually, though, that me was already an invented character. I invented her back in the druggy early '70s in Iowa, where I met and fell in love with Denis when we were both undergraduates in the University of Iowa's famed writing program. Or maybe he invented the me I became with him. Or perhaps we both did the inventing. I was his muse, he claimed. I also was a potential character for his fiction—not just the fiction he wanted to write, as I realized even then, but the fictional...
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SOURCE: Smith, Robert McClure. “Addiction and Recovery in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.” Critique 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 180-91.
[In the following essay, Smith evaluates the meaning of substance abuse and recovery in Jesus' Son.]
Denis Johnson is the poet laureate of the pathology of addiction. His fictional landscape is peopled by lost souls—the sinners, the misfits, the desperate—waiting for a perpetually postponed salvation in a haze of alcohol and heroin.1 Johnson's distinctive vision finds its most spectacular expression in the short story collection Jesus' Son, eleven interlocked tales narrated by an addictive consciousness simultaneously clouded and yet rendered startlingly lucid by chemical dependency. This poetic fiction has inspired some readers to ecstatic hyperbole: “it seems sometimes as if Rimbaud returned from Abbysinia and spent a few years driving around America, hanging out with the riffraff who ended up in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’” (Grimson 3). The enthusiastic reception of Jesus' Son by so many reviewers also evidences the curious narcotic affect the text has upon readers: readers who discover, in the text's narrative processing, an equivalence between the dislocations of perception facilitated by narcotics and the dislocations of perception effected by narrative. For although the “cubist chronology” (McManus 5) of the collection—the...
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SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 1 (spring 2001): 201-02.
[In the following review, Malin discusses the role of spirituality in The Name of the World.]
Denis Johnson is haunted by the ghostly remains of the Catholicism he once accepted. He writes about lost souls who cannot accept heaven or earth, and he recounts their desperate wanderings and longings in a visionary style. The narrator of this stunning novella [The Name of the World] is a middle-aged widower. He cannot stop thinking of the accident that killed his wife and children. He lives (or tries to) in the academic world, but he cannot accept its abstract, secular, meaningless rituals and conventions. So instead, he tries to find solace in strip clubs, in imaginary conversations with the guard of a museum, and in a music student, Flower Cannon, who both strips and plays cello. He returns obsessively to a painting. He looks at the youthful skaters and yearns for their perfect movements. In the last two pages we learn that the events the narrator has described so vividly occurred in the past. He is now a journalist covering the insanity of the Gulf War. He has found a kind of perverse salvation in the vast wastes of the desert. The last sentence describes his ascent in helicopters above blazing tank battles—the vantage offers him a view of “the world...
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SOURCE: Parrish, Timothy L. “Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: To Kingdom Come.” Critique 43, no. 1 (fall 2001): 17-29.
[In the following essay, Parrish maintains that “Jesus' Son explores Johnson's basic theme of transformation, but it does so to reflect on why the author writes the kind of stories that he does.”]
At the end of Denis Johnson's first novel, Angels, the lawyer whose client is about to be executed for murder experiences a revelation about his future career and, ultimately, his identity. He recognizes that he is still young enough to be the elected official “to something or other” that he had assumed he would eventually become, but he realizes that his client's death has changed him. Instead of achieving respectable political office, he knows that he will “probably continue the rest of his life as a criminal lawyer because, in all honesty, a part of him wanted to help murderers go free” (209). Although there is reason to believe that his client's character has been transformed into a redeemable soul during his brief jail term, the moment is nonetheless disturbing because we are unsure whether Fredericks identifies with his client's potential redemption or with the act from which his client must be redeemed. The moment is an emblematic one in Johnson's fiction, revealing an almost obsessive interest in characters who have degraded themselves and others while...
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Feinstein, Howard. “Willing to Take a Walk in the Dark.” New York Times (11 June 2000): AR13.
Profile of Alison Maclean, the director of the cinematic adaptation of Jesus' Son.
Hooper, Brad. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Booklist 89, no. 6 (15 November 1992): 579.
Lauds the “elegant simplicity” of the stories in Jesus' Son.
Kloszewski, Marc. Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Library Journal 125, no. 14 (1 September 2000): 249.
Favorable assessment of The Name of the World.
McKinley, Jesse. “A Prodigal Son Turned Novelist Turns Playwright.” New York Times (16 June 2002): section 2, p. 9.
Observes Johnson's writing and family life.
Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 42 (28 September 1992): 63-4.
Negative review of Jesus' Son.
Rainer, Peter. “Black and Blue.” New York 33, no. 25 (26 June 2000): 128, 130.
Mixed review of the film version of Jesus' Son.
Rungren, Lawrence. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Library Journal 117, no. 18 (1 November 1992): 120.
Asserts that the stories in Jesus'...
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