Equally adept at fiction and poetry, Denis Johnson chronicles the desperate and surreal lives of people dwelling on the edges of America’s society—criminals and addicts, losers and drifters, prostitutes and con men. Johnson was himself born a drifter. His father, Alfred Johnson, worked for the U.S. Information Agency and moved with his family between diplomatic posts in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. The transient nature of Denis Johnson’s formative years gave him a vision of life’s impermanence that shapes much of his work.
After his family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, Johnson entered the University of Iowa, Iowa City, one of the nation’s leading creative writing schools. There he achieved success early, publishing his first poetry collection at the age of nineteen.
Entitled The Man Among the Seals, this collection reflects Johnson’s fascination for people caught in life’s traps—from astronauts squeezed into a space capsule’s tight confines to an elderly widow seeking lost family memories in a slot machine. It also reveals the enduring influence of rock musicians, notably Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, on Johnson’s writing.
Early success had an unnerving effect on Johnson, however, and it was seven years before he published his next book. During that hiatus he completed a B.A. in English in 1971 and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1974, both from the University of Iowa.
In 1974 he moved to Evanston, Illinois, and taught at Chicago’s Lake Forest College. He quickly discovered that he disliked the academic profession and after one year left his teaching post to drift across Washington state doing odd jobs. During this time Johnson published his second book of poetry, Inner Weather, in which he continued to pursue his interest in down-and-out characters, portraying the darkness and defeat at the heart of urban America.
During 1978 and 1979 Johnson stopped writing while recovering from an addiction to heroin and alcohol. This experience profoundly reshaped his writing. After that his characters still dwell in the realm of despair and failure, but their lives also hold potential for resurrection. Moreover, his post-recovery writings increasingly involve mystical imagery and themes.
From 1979 to 1981 Johnson lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and taught at the medium-security prison in Florence. That experience helped shape his first novel, Angels. In 1981 Johnson was awarded a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and he settled in nearby Wellfleet until 1986. Here he encountered many visual artists, and their techniques began to influence his writing. He also pursued his musical influences with a rock radio show on Provincetown’s WOMR.
Johnson’s third book of poetry, The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems, which is based in part on his recovery from addiction, evokes a hell of alienation and shattered dreams that can only be redeemed through the existential desire to survive one’s past. During this time he also published his first three novels. The first, Angels, centers on a character, Jamie, who links up with a former criminal in a cross-country voyage that ends with Jamie in a mental institution and his traveling companion on death row. Fiskadoro, set in Key West eighty years after an atomic apocalypse, portrays the violent, ritualistic hero’s journey of Fiskadoro, a fourteen-year-old Christ figure. The Stars at Noon chronicles the twisted voyage of an American prostitute and a corrupt British businessman through the sordid maze of war-torn Nicaragua’s criminal underground.
All four of the works written in Massachusetts received wide critical attention and praise. The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems was selected for the National Poetry Series, and Angels won the Sue Kaufman Award for Fiction.
Johnson next moved to Gualala in Mendocino County, California, where he published his fourth poetry collection, The Veil . In these poems he continues to explore similar themes of...
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