Denis Johnson Johnson, Denis (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Denis Johnson 1949-

American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's career through 2001.

In both his poetry and fiction, Johnson brings a visionary sensibility to his depictions of isolated, degraded individuals who strive to attain spiritual fulfillment or transcendence in the margins of American society. Since the appearance of his first verse collection, The Man among the Seals (1969), published when he was just nineteen years old, Johnson has earned distinction for the hallucinatory quality of his writing, his poetic, carefully constructed language, and his misfit and mentally unstable characters who provide honest, unsentimental insight into the lurid underside of contemporary American life. In addition to his highly regarded poetry in The Incognito Lounge (1982) and The Veil (1987), Johnson has won acclaim for his fiction, including the novels Fiskadoro (1985) and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), and the short story collection Jesus' Son (1992).

Biographical Information

Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, to Vera Childress Johnson and Alfred Nair Johnson. His father worked for the United States Information Agency, which took the family overseas to Tokyo during Johnson's childhood and to Manila in his adolescence. 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 and a master of fine arts degree in 1974 under the tutelage of poet Marvin Bell. Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man among the Seals, while still an undergraduate. After leaving Iowa, Johnson taught briefly at Lake Forest College in Chicago but, finding academic life dissatisfying, he resigned and left for Washington, 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. After receiving a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1981, Johnson resettled in Cape Cod, where he completed The Incognito Lounge and his first three novels—Angels (1983), Fiskadoro, and The Stars at Noon (1986). During the mid-1980s, Johnson relocated to Gualala, California, and later found a new home in northern Idaho near the Kanishu National Forest in 1989. 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 considerable recognition for his writing, including a National Poetry Series award for The Incognito Lounge, an American Academy Kaufman prize for Angels, the Whiting Foundation award in 1986, a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993, and a PEN/Faulkner award nomination for The Name of the World (2000). His 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, was made into a feature-length film, directed by Alison Maclean, in 2000.

Major Works

Johnson's work, both poetry and fiction, is characterized by its lively language and emotional intensity. His writing regularly features nightmarish or apocalyptic images of isolation and desolation, and often explores themes of redemption and spiritual rebirth. His characters, who tend to live on the fringes of society, are violent, desperate, or mentally unstable. His first verse collection, The Man among the Seals, includes poems about various quirky subjects such as a hapless slot-machine gambler, the behavior of captive seals who are visited by a nighttime swimmer, and a man who kills household mice to placate his wife. Ignoring conventional syntax and punctuation, Johnson creates rolling rhythms with unusual enjambments, sudden line breaks, and stanzas of various lengths. Inner Weather is a slim collection of fifteen poems in which Johnson tempered his stylistic experiments while continuing to probe the despair of everyday individuals, including characters such as train commuters, insomniacs, divorcees, and a debt-ridden writer. The Incognito Lounge further strengthened his reputation as a chronicler of the unusual aspects of American culture. The characters in the collection are sad and lonely figures, denizens of seedy bars and greasy-spoon diners. The Veil contains cultural satire as well as self-analysis, describing strange facets of American culture while sounding like a transcript from a hallucination. As in his earlier poetry, Johnson assumes unusual points of view in this work, including the voices of a mental hospital inmate, a gas station attendant, and a drug-addicted monk. The volume consists of stylistically diverse poems marked by their vivid imagery, esoteric vocabulary, and frequent shifts from colloquial to abstract language. The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (1995) collects many of Johnson's previous poems, along with several new pieces.

The themes and imagery of Johnson's poetry are evident in much of his fiction, particularly his recurring Dantean motif involving a descent into the underworld—or its terrestrial analogue—followed by a “resurrection” that is often compromised or revealed to be delusional. His first novel, Angels, revolves around two desperate characters, Jamie Mays and Bill Houston, and their downslide into criminal activity. Jamie and Bill meet on a bus departing Oakland, California, as Jamie is in the process of leaving her unfaithful husband. Heading east with her two children, Jamie befriends Bill, a thrice-divorced ex-convict with whom she becomes romantically involved. In Pittsburgh, the lovers part, with Bill heading for Chicago. Jamie eventually attempts to find Bill, but is raped during her search. After the two rejoin, they travel to Phoenix, Arizona, Bill's hometown. In Phoenix, Jamie succumbs to drug addiction and Bill resumes his criminal activities. As the book concludes, Jamie is committed to an asylum due to her drug use, and Bill, who has murdered a prison guard, awaits execution. Fiskadoro is set in Florida sixty years after a nuclear holocaust, in a world full of mutants, primitive fishermen, and traders. Among these survivors of nuclear devastation are Grandmother Wright, a one-hundred-year-old woman who survived the 1975 fall of Saigon and has lost her ability to speak; A. T. Cheung, a ragtime clarinetist who is preoccupied with history; and Fiskadoro, Cheung's protégé, who has lost his memory and seems the most likely candidate to contend with the future. Johnson's next novel, The Stars at Noon, is set in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1984, and relates the activities of a self-destructive cynical American posing as a journalist and her lover, an Englishman who is on the run after passing Costa Rican industrial secrets to the Sandinistas. Through the activities of these characters, Johnson attempts to underscore the problematic consequences of American intervention in Central America. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man revolves around Lenny English, a former medical instrument salesman who leaves Kansas after a failed suicide attempt and subsequently takes a job in the resort town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, as a disc jockey and private investigator. English finds a companion in Leanna, the lesbian lover of a woman he is tracking, and attempts to recuperate from the despair that drove him to suicide by searching for an ever-elusive “whole picture,” a personal variety of spiritual assuredness. The narrative follows English's gradual descent into madness as he begins to succumb to the voices in his head—and finally assaults a Catholic bishop whom he believes is at the center of an ambiguous conspiracy.

Jesus' Son is a collection of eleven interconnected short stories; all are narrated by the same unnamed 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. Already Dead (1997), set in rural northern California, is a complex, labyrinthine “gothic”—complete with trolls, spirits, and an assortment of New Age devotees—which centers upon Nelson Fairchild, Jr., an alcoholic marijuana farmer who stands to inherit a substantial fortune. Nelson struggles with an array of problems including being targeted by hit men, but his main concern is how to get rid of his estranged wife. Nelson's dying father, a devout Catholic who will not tolerate divorce, plans to leave his fortune to Nelson's wife, hoping thereby to sustain his son's marriage. Nelson, however, has other plans, and sets out to find someone to kill her. In his search, he encounters Carl Van Ness, a violent criminal bent on self-destruction, who is, for all intents and purposes, “already dead.” The short novel 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. Johnson's first work of nonfiction, Seek (2001), is a collection of eleven journalistic essays—many previously published as magazine pieces—that chronicle the stories of a variety of people and places, from war-torn Afghanistan and Liberia to a Christian revival at the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally in Newark, Texas. Although always present in his anecdotes, Johnson only refers to himself in the third person or as a separate character. In 2002, Johnson published Shoppers, a collection of two of his plays, Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames. Both plays focus on flawed lead characters who inhabit the American West.

Critical Reception

Most of Johnson's work has enjoyed a warm critical reception. His poetry—particularly his first work, The Man among the Seals, and his subsequent volumes The Incognito Lounge and The Veil—has been praised for its wit, lively rhythms, and unusual perspective. His collected verse in The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly was admiringly described by some critics as an anti-Whitman prophecy; where Walt Whitman saw hope, Johnson sees despair, and describes it using an effectively combined language of formal and colloquial diction. Evaluating Johnson's fiction, critics have praised several of his works, especially Fiskadoro, which was singled out for its poetic, perceptive, and energetic language. A number of reviewers have argued that Fiskadoro placed Johnson in the first rank of contemporary American novelists. While his next novel, The Stars at Noon, was met with a mixed reaction by critics, Johnson regained positive critical attention with Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and his short story collection Jesus' Son. The latter work, in particular, has been complimented for its realistic and nightmarish portrayal of addiction. Despite the bizarre psychological states and circumstances that Johnson often evokes in his fiction, many reviewers have noted the author's ability to skillfully render such absurdity as plausible through his engaging storytelling and credible dialogue. Commentators have also praised the compassion with which Johnson treats his neglected, mentally-handicapped, or otherwise depraved characters. The grotesque characters and recurring religious preoccupations in Johnson's writing have prompted favorable comparisons to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Robert Stone.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Man among the Seals (poetry) 1969

Inner Weather (poetry) 1976

The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems (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

Jesus' Son (short stories) 1992

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


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Richard Eder (review date 5 May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson. Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 May 1985): 1, 12.

[In the following positive review, Eder praises Fiskadoro, calling the work “a leap of imagination, with no loss of precision and perceptiveness.”]

Science fiction at its best can do, in reverse, what certain kinds of history can do. Casting its intuition forward, instead of backward, it illuminates our life.

The intuitions in Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro are luminous and suggestive. Thinking into the remnants of what may lie beyond a nuclear holocaust, the novel replants a marooned bit of humanity as if it were a...

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Paul Jenkins (review date spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Paul. “American Poetry, 1987.” Massachusetts Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1988): 97–135.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkins comments on the ubiquitous references to angels in recent American poetry and offers a generally positive review of The Veil.]

Confronted with 130-odd new books of poetry received by MR in 1987, I started out looking for nothing more particular than poems that excited me. Gradually it began to sink in: I was seeing angels, everywhere. In books I liked just as often as in ho-hum ones. Near the end I began to keep count. Of the final eighteen volumes I read, saved for last for no reason but pure chance, fully fourteen...

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Richard Eder (review date 3 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Mine Canary in a Noxious World.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 March 1991): 3, 8.

[In the following positive review, Eder evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, commenting that Johnson has a “dramatist's gift for dialogue.”]

Lenny English is a mine canary. Long before the miners feel it, he flutters and expires to announce: The air's gone bad; it will not sustain life.

In Denis Johnson's wonderfully well-ventilated novel about the bad air of our times, [Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,] Lenny doesn't quite die. But at the start, he is recovering from a suicide attempt; at...

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Gary Krist (review date 3 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Cape Hell.” New Republic 204, no. 22 (3 June 1991): 41–42.

[In the following review, Krist offers a generally positive assessment of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man.]

“Hell,” my Lutheran pastor used to teach in confirmation class, “might be something like Heaven—an eternity in God's presence. But in Hell His face is turned away.” In four novels over the past eight years, Denis Johnson has shown himself to be a diligent geographer of just this kind of hell. His characters, strung-out and usually desperate, dwell in a perpetual state of spoiled grace, locked out of a rapture that they can dimly sense but never achieve without losing...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 2 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “The Hours before Dawn.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4609 (2 August 1991): 18.

[In the following negative review of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Kaveney finds shortcomings in what he perceives as the novel's jaded perspective and hopelessness.]

Denis Johnson writes about boredom and doom, about early-morning twilight and the taste of hangover in the mouth. His characters may inhabit small Latin American republics, or a post-apocalyptic future, or merely the prisons, bars and bus stations of a contemporary USA, but they share a country of the mind, a country more like an anxiety dream than a full-blown nightmare. Nothing works out...

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Paul Elie (review date 13 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elie, Paul. “The Shape of Distant Things.” Commonweal 118, no. 15 (13 September 1991): 522–23.

[In the following positive review, Elie praises Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, noting that “few novels have rendered so well the zany nobility of life on the edge.”]

“There's really only one question,” says Leonard English, the protagonist of Denis Johnson's fourth novel. “Did God really kill himself?” What his new friend wants to know is: “Did it feel sexy when you killed yourself? When you were hanging, did you come?” Overlook the dodgy theology; forget that these aren't the questions you generally ask on a first date in a coffee shop....

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Jack Miles (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miles, Jack. “An Artist of American Violence.” Atlantic Monthly 271, no. 6 (June 1993): 121–24, 126–27.

[In the following positive review, Miles praises Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Jesus' Son, drawing attention to Johnson's distinctive characters and prose style.]

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...

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John Sutherland (review date 2 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “Holy Drunkalogs.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4709 (2 July 1993): 23.

[In the following positive review, Sutherland examines Johnson's prose in Jesus' Son.]

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)....

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Daria Donnelly (review date 13 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Donnelly, Daria. “Flannery O'Connor in Reverse.” Commonweal 120, no. 14 (13 August 1993): 23–24.

[In the following positive review of Jesus' Son, Donnelly compares Johnson's writing style to the prose of Flannery O'Connor.]

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...

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Sven Birkerts (review date October–November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Boston Review 18, no. 5 (October–November 1993): 30.

[In the following review of Jesus' Son, Birkerts compares the prose styles of Denis Johnson, Thom Jones, and 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 large 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....

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Dan McGuiness (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGuiness, Dan. Review of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, by Denis Johnson. Antioch Review 54, no. 2 (spring 1996): 249–50.

[In the following review, McGuiness offers a positive assessment of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.]

The Man among the Seals and Inner Weather are so rare, you'll never find them. The Incognito Lounge and The Veil? The spines are so cracked and the pages so overrun with scribbling they defy reading and take their place on the shelf as artifacts. So we need this collection [The Throne of the Third Heaven of the...

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Scott Martelle (review date 29 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martelle, Scott. “The Good Earth.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 September 1997): 13.

[In the following excerpt, Martelle evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Already Dead.]

We are, often without our awareness, creatures of the land we inhabit, defined by the terrain on which we live. It helps congeal our sense of beauty, our sense of self. An Easterner, for example, moving to the sere valleys of Southern California, can't help but be taken aback by the dryness, the brownness, the grayness. He is oblivious to what Wallace Stegner used to describe as this subtle beauty that comes in shades other than green.

For a time, anyway. Then...

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Irving Malin (review date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Already Dead, by Denis Johnson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1998): 229–30.

[In the following review, Malin praises Already Dead, complimenting Johnson's vision of California culture.]

Although Johnson is drawn to sinners, deviants, and criminals, he does not glorify them. Instead, he attempts to find “virtues” in their misguided choices. He is interested in the possibilities of their conversion, their secret longings for salvation. The fact that his Catholic background has nourished his art helps him in his mission. He never preaches; he never writes propaganda. Johnson is interested in the...

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Henry Hitchings (review date 16 July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hitchings, Henry. Review of Already Dead, by Denis Johnson. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5024 (16 July 1999): 23.

[In the following review of Already Dead, Hitchings commends Johnson's prose style, but finds shortcomings in the novel's philosophizing and unsympathetic characters.]

Denis Johnson's Already Dead is the meandering, bleakly humorous story of a society in decay, a noirish portrait of the narcotized survivors of the American West Coast. In this twisted, drug-addled, depressive stratum of existence, Johnson's characters are freaks and loners, enslaved by their obsessions. One of them declares that “you can do anything,...

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David L. Ulin (review date 25 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ulin, David L. “Universe of Faith and Terror.” Nation 272, no. 25 (25 June 2001): 25–26, 28.

[In the following review, Ulin examines the essays in Seek, praising the “rawness” of Johnson's prose style.]

Let's begin with a Denis Johnson moment. One Saturday, in Los Angeles, I venture out to buy a newspaper; when I get home, I discover, wedged between its C and D sections, a grainy flier offering spiritual aid. The flier is signed by a guy named Steve, who's a member of something called the Motorcycle Church of Christ, and right there on the paper is his phone number, inscribed neatly in ballpoint pen. Normally, I'd just throw it in the garbage...

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Timothy L. Parrish (essay date fall 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 examines the recurring themes of transformation and redemption in Jesus' Son, drawing attention to Johnson's preoccupation with transcendence.]

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Allen, Bruce. “Energetic Novel Probes Post-Nuclear Future.” Christian Science Monitor (31 July 1985): 20.

Allen argues that Fiskadoro is a “a risky, ambitious, exhilarating book” and praises the novel's attention to detail.

Blades, John. “Novelist Turns Nicaragua into a Tropical Inferno.” Chicago Tribune Books (12 October 1986): 3.

Blades offers a positive assessment of The Stars at Noon.

Breslin, Paul. “The Simple, Separate Person and the Word En-Masse.” Poetry 143, no. 1 (October 1988): 30–47.

Breslin comments on the problematic...

(The entire section is 559 words.)