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).
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.
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.
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.