Denis Johnson

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Richard Eder (review date 5 May 1985)

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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 cutting, and recounts the old traits and the new ones that sprout from it.

The mainland of the United States has been destroyed, and perhaps other parts of the world as well. We do not know, exactly, because Fiskadoro keeps us in the hauntingly confined circle of its characters' own knowledge. They are a straggler community in the Florida Keys that survives on the edge of the contaminated regions to the north.

It is a quarantined zone, enforced by the undestroyed societies south of it—notably Cuba, which holds the region's power. The quarantine is temporal as well as geographic. It has been in force since the bombs fell, 60 or 70 years earlier, and it will end before very much longer.

The inhabitants of Twicetown—it is Key West and named after the two dud nuclear bombs that fell there and that serve as a kind of shrine—wait in vague apprehension. Their transitional society is about to be replaced; they have no idea how. From the brief words of a narrator at the beginning, we gather that when Cuba, itself transformed, moves in, it will impose what has become an extensive plantation economy and a theocratic regime based on the Koran.

Johnson's novel, beautifully written, does not deal with this future except as a barely suggested shadow. Its focus is on the transitional settlement of fishermen and traders that lives among artifacts of the past, scraps of memories and the uncertain shape of what is to come.

They are a mixture of blacks, whites and Latinos, and they speak an unstable patois with a strong infusion of Spanish. The live by fishing, a kind of scrappy gardening and a few rudimentary crafts bartered with the traders who scavenge the destroyed settlements to the north for bits and pieces of what remains of America's consumer output. They have old records and tapes, amplifying equipment and carefully mended strobe lights for communal celebration. Their huts are furnished with old church pews, car seats, bits of chrome.

Deformed mutants—Los Desechados (the Destitute), they are called—wander through. In the swamps, there is a community of drug-taking primitives whose totem is a two-headed snake—another mutation—and who mutilate their genitals to imitate it.

The three principal characters represent three stages of time. The one at mid-point is Anthony Cheung, a middle-aged clarinetist and vegetable gardener. He does not remember the pre-holocaust civilization but is dedicated to trying to decipher and hold on to bits of it. His parents had their children memorize the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence before burning their copies to keep warm; and in moments of distress, he recites passages from them.

Cheung is the manager of a tiny group of would-be musicians who call themselves the Miami Symphony Orchestra. He is also a member of a circle that gets together to read aloud the few books that remain, including a children's story about whales and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

He lives with his grandmother, a woman...

(This entire section contains 915 words.)

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in her 90s who was a Vietnamese refugee. She alone remembers the pre-war world, which for her was a series of flights. In a succession of brilliantly written passages, she recalls bits of her childhood and adolescence. But she can no longer speak, and so the testimony about pre-war civilization that Cheung so covets—the irony is searing—is denied to him.

Cheung is also the mentor of Fiskadoro, a fisherman's son to whom he tries to teach the clarinet. Fiskadoro, whose name is a corruption of an old Spanish word for harpoonist, possesses a kind of prophetic restlessness. He is a misfit among the fishermen and an outsider at the nightly bonfire-lighted beach parties held by his companions. He wanders off across the dunes and is captured by the swamp people. They give him drugs that purge his memory, and they mutilate him.

He returns, finally, and as he convalesces, he gradually relearns what he has forgotten. But it is knowledge, not memory. Cheung teaches him the clarinet once more, and this time he plays it marvelously well. He has “forgotten how not to play,” and it is in this state, unmarked by history, that he becomes a sign of the featureless future, just as Cheung's grandmother is a sign of the past.

Cheung himself, to whom both past and future are shadows, is the immensely appealing balance-wheel of Fiskadoro. He is an ardent seeker, a frail burning-glass in the fog of history.

Johnson is the author of Angels, a taut and penetrating novel about a floating American underclass. Fiskadoro is a leap of imagination, with no loss of precision and perceptiveness. The book's philosophic explorations are not always clear, but the ambiguities are those of a stunningly delivered poetic vision. Johnson has lassoed a fantastic and imagined future by populating it with people whom we see clearly, and ache for immeasurably, as for ourselves.


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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.

Paul Jenkins (review date spring 1988)

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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 contained one or more angels.

Why angels? The trickledown into poetry of the unworldly Reagan years? A reinvasion of beings supplanted in recent decades by extraterrestrials and Cabbage Patch dolls? Or simply the publication of so many new translations of the Duino Elegies? But when I looked at what angels are actually doing in one 1987 volume after another, a hypothesis began to take shape. Here are five fairly representative examples:

[the] printer is so fast
it virtually thinks for you
as though your soul were a
frantic angel imprisoned
in a computer chip. …

(Richard Harteis, Internal Geography, Carnegie-Mellon)

Steers are dumb like angels …

(Ruth Stone, Second-Hand Coat, Godine)

… mosquitoes—
those blood angels …

(Gillian Conoley, Some Gangster Pain, Carnegie-Mellon)

… the uptown prostitutes
          shared the same source
                    and floated down
from 42nd and Times Square like angels …

(Daniel Halpern, Tango, Viking)

This poem is an adagio. A slow
yearning of winds and strings.
Like the hot August night I got
drunk with friends, and laughing
and sweating, we linked arms and lay
back in the deep wine, the cool
Einstinian space of summer grass,
streaming upward like angels. …

(Robert Dana, Starting Out for the Difficult World, Harper & Row)

These are not Rilke's angels, harrowing, imperturbable; these are pliable, domesticated angels, used to being compared to the mundane, subject to the same foibles and failures as physical reality but glad to lend a touch of class to the familiar. What I think we are seeing, in the reappearance of angels, is the reaction of poets to the general suspicion that contemporary poems are small, limited to accidents of personal observation and daily experience. Angels can lift the ordinary to significance, or, conversely, provide a scale against which to measure the ordinary.

Would someone examining the poetic output of a recent previous year have seen as many angels? I don't know for certain. I don't remember noticing so many myself. But the impulse seems to be shared by women and men alike, so far as I can tell, although I didn't count. (Of the roughly 130 books received, just over fifty are by women.) Without particular regard to the presence or absence of angels, but with an overwhelming impression of the predictability of many books, I sorted those received into books that, in my opinion, warranted serious, prolonged attention and those that did not. (Small-press books represented about half of the volumes received, the other half being fairly equally divided between university and trade presses.) The group of books that struck me as being strong books amounted to thirty-five volumes. Of those thirty-five, sixteen were trade publications, twelve were small press books, and only seven were university press sponsored. (The two most active university press series—Pittsburgh's and Wesleyan's—were notable for their absence among even those seven.) As over against the often-lamented failure of trade presses to sustain poetry in this country, the general uniformity and mediocrity of university press books constitute, in my opinion, an even greater embarrassment. It is to the remaining trade presses who maintain poetry lists, together with a wide range of small, independent publishers, that credit for the year's best work in poetry is due.

Of those most interesting thirty-five, I have picked nine books to review in detail. In each instance my choice reflects what I feel to be a greater urgency and unpredictability—a larger taste for, or courage for, risk—than is true of other, perhaps equally accomplished books. Angels turn out to appear in seven of these nine as well. But more often than not, in these seven, angels become the subjects of poems rather than convenient, dross-to-gold similes. …

Next to Lucille Clifton's pressure-treated economy [in Next], the poems in Denis Johnson's The Veil are extravagant cloudbursts, galaxies with barely enough gravity left inside them to hold the pieces together. What does hold them together are sudden fits of non sequitur and hallucination, a world apart from Clifton's focused praise and indignation.

And then we came out of a tunnel into one of those restaurants
where the natural light was so unnatural
as to make heavenly even our fingernails and each radish.
I saw everyone's skull beneath the skin,
I saw sorrow painting its way out of the faces,
someone was telling a lie and I could taste it,
and I heard the criminal tear-fall,
saw the dog
who dances with his shirt rolled up to his nipples,
the spider …

(“The Rockefeller Collection of Primitive Art”)

The desire to heighten (can angels be far behind? no, they can't; several are caught between the covers of this book), pursued in short order by the impulse to pull the rug out from underneath: hyperbole cut by hilarity may be the most reliable earmark of the decade's poetic sensibility. Yet the lines that immediately follow those quoted above show more is at stake in this museum visit than the free play of sentiment and wit:

Why are their mouths small tight circles,
the figures of Africa, New Guinea, New Zealand,
why are their mouths astonished kisses beneath drugged eyes,
why is the eye of the cantaloupe expressionless
but its skin rippling with terror …

I come to believe Johnson's terror is genuine—just as I come to believe Clifton's sympathies are deeply felt—because the language is exact and exuberant (“astonished,” “rippling”) and because Johnson moves from image to image or perception to perception, intuitively for the most part, riding the seat of his pants, rather than by calculation. Sometimes that movement is, to be sure, far less than certain, as in these drifting lines from “Grey Day in Miami”:

Our love has been.
I see the rain.
is abstract any more:
I nearly expect one of these
droplets loose tonight on the avenues of the wind
to identify itself as my life.
Now love is not a feeling
like wrath or sadness, but an act
like murdering the stars.

Other times a poem's movement can be very certain, even overly certain, as in the click-into-place assembly of “The Basement.” Most of the time, though, the associative rhythms of these poems fall somewhere between out-of-control and deliberate, switching channels and tracks in a breathtaking display of nimbleness, then landing in surprise on the very spot where they began.

That spot is not always a comfortable one. Johnson goes out of his way to project a bad-boy, iconoclastic self-image, a breezy avatar of disdain. He can swagger and give air time to misogyny, with which—despite his penchant for personae—he clearly sympathizes:

You might as well take a razor
to your pecker as let a woman in your heart.
First they do the wash and then they kill you.
They flash their lights and teach your wallet to puke. …

(“Talking Richard Wilson Blues, By Richard Clay Wilson”)

Or he picks fights with professors or takes sideswipes at homosexuals. Or he can come up with litanies of pity and charity so sudden, so extreme, as to seem disingenuous:

We must start to forgive and not stop
for a single minute, maybe not even to love.
We must look down
out of this age spent telling stories
about each tree, each rock, each
person who is a bird, or a fish, or walks in their fur,
and see our brothers and sisters. …

(“The Other Age”)

Yet just as my patience has stretched thin, the lines that come next—and end the poem—stun and convince:

There is no such thing as danger,
no such thing as a false move,
but they are afraid;
the stores have everything
and everything salutes
its own reflection—shiny, shiny
life that we call
shelf life,
but they are afraid;
the eight-ball is a meatball in whiskey heaven; the motorcycles
stand out front in the sun like spears,
and they are afraid.

Fear is the central fact of these poems. When the fear is addressed as a personal condition, the self-involved poet feels free to make pronouncements about the relation between public and private that are the very opposite of Lucille Clifton's:

I'm trying to explain how these islands of meaningless joy
or the loss of someone close to me, like you,
can make the tragedy of a whole age insignificant. …

(“All-Night Diners”)

The best poems of The Veil, though—and there are a number of alarming, exciting ones—find a point at which cultural satire and self-knowledge join, where inner and outer weather are exchanged. Johnson knows what Clifton knows in the poem that addresses her own “cruelty”—what he disdains in others he carries within himself:

Then how did I finally reach these executives
exiting the plushness carrying cool
musical drinks into the crystal noon
of the Goodyear Tire Company's jumped-up oasis?
The sharks and generals within my heart,
the Naugahyde …

(“The Past”)

Johnson's work in The Veil features various wounded ones—doped-up insomniac monks, cripples, inmates of mental hospitals, Texaco pump attendants—and maintains an air of superiority even as he sympathizes with their woundedness. At those moments when his own vulnerabilities are raw as well, however, the war between moods, between attitudes, can be very powerfully honest and affecting:

In August the steamy saliva of the streets of the sea
habitation we make our summer in,
the horizonless noons of asphalt,
the deadened strollers and the melting beach,
the lunatic carolers toward daybreak—
they all give fire to my new wife's vision:
she sees me to the bone. In August I disgust her.
And her crazy mixed-up child, who eats with his mouth open
talking senselessly about androids, who comes
to me as I gaze out on the harbor wanting
nothing but peace, and says he hates me,
who draws pages full of gnarled organs and tortured
spirits in an afterworld—
but it is not an afterworld, it is this world—
how I fear them for knowing all about me! …

(“Movie within a Movie”)

Although The Veil is not even or steady, either in quality of language or outlook, its poems are daring, frequently disarming, sometimes beautiful, and always on edge. The stanza from “Red Darkness” that follows is typical of Johnson's excitability and ability to excite:

So after I broke the cat's neck with a shovel because it was incurable
          the parking lot looked like it was memorizing me.
I thought I heard the afternoon saying just another son of a bitch,
Just another thrillseeker another
Hard-on another nightmare. The infinite
Accent falling on the self seemed
To hold out forgiveness in its placement of some cars
To my left and to my right a shopping cart or something I forget
          what it was.
The point is, the point is I might have singled out
Anything in that landscape and said those trees are after me; but
It is the nature of the Atlantic white cedar to invade swamps:
It is not the nature of this cedar to judge me. On
The other side of the damages I saw a man
Standing where the scenes of my childhood had been torn down.
And he was carrying the next day in his hands, and he was awake. …

Principal Works

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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

The Name of the World (novel) 2000

Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond (essays) 2001

*Shoppers: Two Plays (plays) 2002

*Includes Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames.

Richard Eder (review date 3 March 1991)

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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 the end, he is in jail. That is close enough.

Furthermore, Lenny possesses not only the canary's useful dying traits but its purling morning voice as well. Though Johnson's book is very dark, it doesn't seem so. It is written with too much tenderness, with leaps that are as nervy as a mountain goat's, and landings that are as sure-footed and still.

Month by month, year by year and seemingly forever, we have been getting the bad news. All the handy and agreeable things of modern life undermine life. Apples (Mylar), cheap food (carcinogenic pesticides and preservatives), hair dryers and electric clocks (electrical radiation), beach vacations (ultra-violet rays), cars and aerosol sprays (global warming), cars again (oil dependency, Gulf wars, news-analyst burnout).

As for Lenny, a nice, squarish, 30-ish Midwesterner who comes East, his field is human and divine order. The spiritual conveniences, shortcuts, flexibilities and fudge of contemporary life make him ill. He does not judge them—he is all openness and yearning—but they make him ill.

He arrives by beat-up Volkswagen in Provincetown, the artistic, gay-and-lesbian, free-form life style and tourist haven on Cape Cod's fishhook. It is winter, foggy and off-season. “So much was off,” Johnson writes. “All bets were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn't have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off.”

Lenny comes from Kansas to take up a double part-time job offered him by Sands, a Provincetown businessman. He will act as occasional disc jockey on Sand's radio station, and become an investigator for his detective agency. Perhaps it will be a new life; he had tried to end the previous one by hanging himself.

It was a protest over his job. He was a salesman and loved the work, the contacts and the people. What he couldn't abide was the product he was selling: surgical equipment.

That may sound like an odd thing to object to, but Lenny had seen the equipment demonstrated on animals in the manufacturer's labs. They were near the airport; while dogs were being sliced up, he could hear jets landing. “That an airport could go about its gigantic business in the same world as this laboratory seemed impossible unless … all things conspired consciously to do perfect evil,” Lenny had thought despairingly.

Deadly means for convenient ends; a society out of touch with itself, with its values, with God. Lenny, an occasionally practicing Catholic, tries to find something that abides, but everything slips away. Nothing is what it seems. And in Provincetown, with its transvestite bars and gay couples, he feels he has arrived in a kind of temple to nothing being what it seems.

Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is about Lenny's efforts to penetrate “seems” and get to “is.” “A knight of faith” he calls himself half-jokingly, and Johnson creates in him a character as winning, futile and even heroic as that other Knight of the Woeful Countenance, Cervantes' Don Quixote. Lenny seeks reality in a relativistic world, as Don Quixote sought giants in windmills. He lands in much the same up-ended posture.

Lenny's quest takes him on an erratic and cloudy adventure. This is his effort to untangle what he comes to believe is a far-right conspiracy by a shadowy group called the Truth Infantry that conducts summer exercises in a New Hampshire camp. Sands has assigned him to trace a painter who has disappeared. Among his papers, Lenny discovers a reference to the Infantry. And after Sands dies of a heart attack, he hears gossip that his former boss was himself the head of the group.

Investigating, he is, at one point, abducted, roughed up, questioned by a middle-aged man in an enormous carnival hat, and then released. He goes to New Hampshire and discovers the painter's body hanged.

Perhaps he hanged himself. It is never entirely clear whether what Lenny is after is a conspiracy or simply a group of middle-aged Boy Scouts playing at conspiracy. The latter, no doubt, but Lenny can't be sure, nor can we. His shaky search provides both suspense and comedy. And beyond that, it provides a moving portrait of a hungry soul in a world of spiritual junk food. Is the whole universe a conspiracy? Where is God? Is God the chief conspirator? The climax of Lenny's adventures is an attempt to assassinate the local Catholic bishop who, Lenny believes, may be the man behind the Infantry.

A conspiracy, in fact, would be a relief. Worse than that is aimlessness, entropy, the failure of anything to keep its shape. Johnson seems, at first glance, to have written a classic absurdist, high-gloss novel of contemporary paranoia. In fact, he has written a much older kind of classic with a hero who is a genuine seeker, a touching innocent somewhere in mid-space among Candide, Alice in Wonderland and Zippy.

Lenny's pursuit of conspiracy and God in a post-modern world that has a hard time sustaining either one—there is a comically inconclusive confession to a priest who is too broad-minded to get to the point of absolution—provides the conspicuous action. But the heart of the book is his lovely, lightly doomed affair with Leanna.

It is love across a chasm. If Lenny is the Montague of single-minded authenticity, Leanna is the Capulet of polymorphous relativity. Both are innocents, but where Lenny is the child of Immanence, Leanna is the child of her time. And place. As she tells Lenny as he runs up to her after Mass and asks for a date: “Not me. I'm strictly P-town.” Gay, in other words, she tells this fresh arrival from Kansas. “You don't look gay,” he protests. “Isn't that against the law? It'd be easier if you gave some indication.”

And from there ensues a marvelously weighted and inflected courtship. Johnson has a dramatist's gift for dialogue that advances, skids, retreats, disappears underground and reemerges. We know more than the characters do, but we know it from what they say, not from what the author says.

They get through the fences in spite of themselves. They make love, they are in love. It is the same love, but they can't conceive of it the same way. Lenny wants commitment; Leanna wants to keep her female lovers; yet it's more than a matter of desire. She can't understand what commitment might be. “Why is it you? Why isn't it anyone else?” she asks in bed with Lenny.

It is heart-rending; it is the touch of one of the finest American novelists writing today. Johnson, author of the magical novel of a time after the nuclear holocaust—Fiskadoro—has written another book, perhaps equally remarkable and more perfectly executed.

Like Stanley Elkin and Don DeLillo at their best, Johnson has not simply created a powerfully comedic and frightening world of disconnection and the absurd. In Lenny and Leanna, he gives us two human companions in it; a doubled Virgil to lead us through a modern Purgatory which, for all we know, may be all the Inferno we are likely to get.

Gary Krist (review date 3 June 1991)

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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 their sanity. Suffering keenly, scrabbling for redemption, they play out what has become the organizing myth of Johnson's fiction: the descent into the underworld, followed by a resurrection that is bankrupt, compromised, or just plain delusionary. It is the old myth of apotheosis, but subverted—or brought up to date.

In Angels, his first novel, Johnson presented his most immediately recognizable depiction of the God-forsaken underworld. The book's protagonists—Jamie, a runaway young mother, and Bill, a thrice-divorced ex-con—wandered through a darkly poeticized version of the wrong side of the tracks, a metaphorical rubble of bus stations, cheap motels, and, ultimately, prisons and mental institutions. The rubble became literal in his second novel: hell in Fiskadoro was a post-Armageddon wasteland—Key West after the nuclear holocaust—where the only route to salvation turned out to be the annihilation of memory. And in The Stars at Noon, a kind of surrealist farce (and the closest thing to a comedy Johnson has written), hell was Nicaragua in 1984, an atmosphere so compromised by corruption and moral confusion that any attempt to perform a decent, honest act was rendered futile.

With these three novels, Johnson established himself as one of the most serious and provocative writers of his generation. Not only were the books written in a vivid, almost hallucinatory style that was in itself a substantial achievement, they were also ambitious. Unlike many writers his age, Johnson was not content merely to present a depraved world, call it America, and wait for the royalty checks to roll in. His early work, Fiskadoro in particular, went beyond that kind of static revelation, manifesting a keen interest in how the religious impulse—the human inclination toward transcendence—operates in such a context of spiritual catastrophe.

These implied religious concerns have become explicit in his latest book. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man begins by mapping out another of Johnson's hells, but this one, the seaside resort of Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the off-season, is perhaps his oddest, most idiosyncratic version so far. Johnson is probably aware that this particular choice of hell may at first glance seem too heavily ironic and perhaps slightly homophobic (given the demographics of the town), but what interests him about Provincetown is its quality of social and sexual indefiniteness. As he depicts it, Provincetown, “the last town in America” and “the end of the line,” is a fundamentally bewildering place where all manner of distinctions break down—where men dress as women, women as men, and everyone seems to have two or three unrelated part-time jobs, eluding definition at every turn. Lacking any clear and harmonious chain of being, Provincetown is emphatically not the City of God.

Into this setting Johnson introduces a character for whom such an atmosphere of doubt can only lead to trouble—an impressionable, deeply disturbed young man with a sharp need for spiritual certainty. Leonard English, a 34-year-old orphan from Lawrence, Kansas, arrives on the peninsula one night in the reckless, violent style that has become trademark for this author. Having stopped for a few drinks in a town along the road (its hopelessness beautifully and efficiently suggested by images of empty shopping centers and boarded-up seafood stands), English drinks himself numb and proceeds to smash his Volkswagen into a traffic island on a lonely stretch of highway. A local cabdriver appears at his bloody shoulder and tells him, perhaps too prophetically: “You made a wrong turn.” Neither English nor the reader will ever think of disputing this.

In the course of the book's first section, Johnson reveals his protagonist's twofold purpose in coming to the Cape. English is here to start one of those hybrid Provincetown jobs as a radio announcer cum private investigator, but also, more important, to recover from a botched suicide attempt. In a moment of weakness, it seems, English once tried to hang himself, for reasons that he can't seem to articulate or even understand. He is a Catholic, but a Catholic in crisis, unable to make the cleansing confession that would free him of his sin. So he is floundering, as all of Johnson's ingenues flounder, in God's shadow, just out of sight of the countenance he aches to see but cannot find:

[English] didn't pray anymore for faith, because he'd found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I'll grow until I've found you, and you won't be there.

To speak of English as an ingenue may strike some readers as rather ingenuous in itself. The character does, after all, drink himself into a stupor at every opportunity, and he's not above smashing windows, stealing passports, and committing the occasional illegal entry. But English is a spiritual innocent, ripe for manipulation by the outside world. He possesses a type of consciousness that has become alarmingly common in recent fiction—a mind of confused impressions and inarticulate needs, subject to the exigencies of the moment (or, as Johnson puts it, “a brain where everything fizzes and nothing connects”). This particular kind of character is all too often used as an author's crutch, a facile symbol of an incoherent world, but Johnson finds in English's fizzing brain the perfect laboratory for the kind of experiment he wants to conduct. The important difference between English and the garden-variety zoned-out cipher is that English's inability to connect is accompanied by an almost unbearably intense need to connect. It is a religious impulse turned pathological. And it is what ultimately turns English into a monster.

Johnson is able to push his character's ominously suggestible mind to extremes by throwing English headlong into the nebulous complexities of Provincetown. During his first weeks in town, English falls in with a series of acquaintances—a morally dubious employer named Ray Sands, a cabdriver who subscribes to theories of extraterrestrial interference, a burned-out alcoholic radio announcer—who only intensify his feelings of confusion and doubt. Even more disorienting is his romance with Leanna Sousa, an attractive lesbian whom he meets in church on his first day in Provincetown. English becomes infatuated with her, and Leanna, surprisingly (and not quite credibly), encourages his attentions, at the same time distancing him by carrying on an affair with another woman.

The scenes between English and Leanna—ambiguous, offbeat, sometimes infuriating, and often strangely exhilarating—are typical of the book's peculiar sensibility, perhaps best described as a sort of post-“Twin Peaks” semicomic absurdity. Johnson's aim is to suggest the chaotic muddle into which English has wandered, and in that he succeeds. The danger he faces in depicting such arbitrary and gratuitous oddness, however, is to seem arbitrarily and gratuitously odd himself. It's a familiar pitfall in a certain strain of contemporary fiction, with its fashionably bizarre characters whose actions seem motivated primarily by a desire to reveal the eccentric and subversive genius of their creators. But Johnson is after something more interesting than the revelation of the alleged dark corruption at the heart of the American psyche. He uses the absurdity and the corruption as a starting point, not as ends in themselves, wishing instead to probe his character's efforts to engage the chaos and force it into some kind of meaning.

Frustrated by the absence of any tangible signs of God's reclamation of him, English becomes more and more desperate as the book progresses. Two crucial events push him over the edge of mere depression into a kind of psychosis—witnessing Ray Sands's freak and fatal heart attack (the most terrifying scene in the book), and being kidnapped one night (apparently by mistake), interrogated, beaten, and left on the street to bleed. These galvanizing events have the effect of undermining the last remnants of English's already shaky sense of reality. He begins to believe that his torment is God's way of preparing him for something, the purpose he is yearning for: “Right now he almost had the power to say that he'd really killed himself. That his life on earth had stopped and then started somewhere else—here, now. That he'd hung himself, died, and been brought here to wait for God's word. God's charge, the task that would bring Lenny English back from the dark.”

English begins to sense in the white noise around him subtle hints of a conspiracy, a plot centering around something called the Truth Infantry, an obscure paramilitary organization of which his late boss was apparently the head. This conspiracy, he decides, is the medium by which God is sending his message. Johnson skillfully suggests that all of the seemingly related events—the kidnapping, the disappearance of a young man named Gerald Twinbrook, the secret and vaguely sinister friendship of Ray Sands and the local bishop—may actually be unrelated, coincidental, threaded into coherence by a mind needy for meaning. But English experiences an almost physical compulsion to find his mission in these loose ends. And when the voice in his head (his inner rebop, he calls it) begins to assume the shape of a terrible command, English is forced to enter into some dangerous speculation:

What if a person heeded all such inner rebop, would he be damned or saved? How quickly would a person's life progress along its lines if he followed every impulse as if it started from God? How much more quickly would he be healed? Or how much faster destroyed? Saints had done that. Also mass killers, and wreakers of a more secret mayhem, witches and cultists and vampires. …

The mention of saints, cultists, and mass killers in the same breath broaches a central preoccupation of the novel. Johnson (like Thomas Pynchon, a writer whose influence is evident throughout) is troubled by the slender boundary separating paranoia and a belief in any kind of mission or purpose—or, for that matter, a belief in any external meaning whatsoever. The discernment of meaning, of course, is a selection process. We select certain elements from our perceptions and define them as significant, as an expression of coherent intention. But what governs this selection in a context of chaos, where no self-evident hierarchy of experience exists? And what makes one selection a delusion and the other an inspiration? Simone Weil, who is alluded to frequently throughout the book, interpreted her message as an injunction to starve herself to death, in response to the deaths of millions of people in Hitler's camps. Was this a simple delusion? If it was not, what made it something more?

These are the questions that English asks himself once he becomes firmly convinced that there is indeed a web—a many-tentacled conspiracy—at the center of which lies Andrew, the bishop. English, his brain making connections at last, decides that the bishop is the dragon that he, the self-professed knight of faith, must slay. That is the act of faith that will turn God's face back to him. He still has enough of his wits to recognize this act as insane, but would God ask him to do anything sane? “Did He come to Elijah and say, Go, secure a respectable position and wear out your days in the chores of it?” If the task were easy to justify, he reasons, it wouldn't require the defining leap of faith.

Johnson has successfully woven the thread of suspense through his novel, and I don't want to give away the ending. Suffice it to say that English ultimately decides to heed his inner rebop. The book closes with the most disturbing of Johnson's nightmare apotheoses: sleepless, dressed in a mélange of men's and women's clothing, and armed with a stolen gun, English steers a leaky boat toward the figure of the bishop on the Provincetown pier. And in answering what he believes to be God's call, he transforms himself into an utterly new kind of creature: a knight of faith after all, a saint for the new millennium in America.

Clearly, nobody will ever accuse Denis Johnson of lacking brashness. If there are moments, as I've suggested, when he skates along the edge of some major problems, that's no surprise, given the leaps he is interested in making. By obscuring the line between religion and psychosis in an atmosphere of chaos, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man raises large doubts about the possibility of faith in any world like our own, where “there [is] no telling the difference between up and down, wrong and right, between sex and love, men and women, even between the living and the dead.” My old pastor would probably be appalled.

Further Reading

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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 self-centeredness of contemporary poetry and offers a positive assessment of The Veil.

Dobyns, Stephen. “Reggae at the End of the World.” Washington Post Book World (30 June 1985): 7.

Dobyns evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Fiskadoro, concluding that Johnson is a “wonderful storyteller.”

Gates, David. “A Family's Darkest Secret.” Newsweek (8 February 1993): 67.

Gates evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Jesus' Son.

Gray, Paul. “California Bad Dreaming.” Time 150, no. 6 (11 August 1997): 77.

Gray offers a generally positive assessment of Already Dead, commenting that he finds the novel unconvincing.

Harvey, Dennis. Review of Hellhound on My Trail, by Denis Johnson. Variety 380, no. 3 (4 September 2000): 32.

Harvey criticizes a production of Johnson's play Hellhound on My Trail, arguing that the work “rambles far too long for scant tangible reward.”

Johnson, Denis, David Wojahn, and Lynda Hull. “The Kind of Light I'm Seeing: An Interview with Denis Johnson.” Ironwood 13 (1985): 31–44.

Johnson discusses his formative experiences, thematic preoccupations, poetic technique, artistic influences, and alternation between poetry and fiction.

Johnson, Denis, and Jesse McKinley. “A Prodigal Son Turned Novelist Turns Playwright.” New York Times (16 June 2002): Section 2, p. 9.

Johnson discusses his motivations behind writing the two plays collected in Shoppers.

Johnson, Denis, and Eric Wetzel. “Plays Well with Others: Denis Johnson's Selfless Promotion.” Book (July–August 2002): 13–15.

Johnson discusses the reasons why he agrees to do interviews to promote his plays—Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames—but will no longer do interviews to promote his prose or poetry.

McClatchy, J. D. Review of The Incognito Lounge, by Denis Johnson. Poetry 143, no. 3 (December 1983): 170–71.

McClatchy offers a generally negative assessment of The Incognito Lounge.

Miller, Michael. “Anatomy of Melancholy.” Village Voice (1 August 2000): 61.

Miller offers a positive assessment of The Name of the World.

Murphy, Bruce. “The Big Poem.” Poetry 170, no. 2 (May 1997): 90–100.

Murphy compliments the poetry in The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, noting how Johnson's “language blends the conversational and formal.”

Smith, Robert McClure. “Addiction and Recovery in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.Critique 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 180–91.

Smith examines the narrative presentation, prose style, and theme of visionary consciousness in Jesus' Son, drawing attention to structural and semantic aspects of Johnson's fiction that mirror the experience of addiction and recovery.

Ulin, David L. “The Architecture of Madness.” Washington Post Book World (28 April 1991): 6.

Ulin discusses the plot structure of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, arguing that the loose narrative is the only major flaw in Johnson's “hypnotic” novel.

Updike, John. “Dog's Tears.” New Yorker 76, no. 20 (24 July 2000): 76–78.

Updike offers a negative assessment of The Name of the World.

Wojahn, David. “Like a Rolling Incognito Lounge: Rock and Roll and American Poetry.” Kansas Quarterly 24–25 (1992–1993): 246–62.

Wojahn examines Johnson's poetry and the influence of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on Johnson's verse.

Additional coverage of Johnson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 117, 121; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 71, 99; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; and Literature Resource Center.

Roz Kaveney (review date 2 August 1991)

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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 right for these characters, and the things that go wrong do so with a repetitiveness that comes to seem achingly inevitable.

[In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,] Leonard English tried to kill himself in revulsion from his job as a medical instrument salesman, with the vivisection of animals as a sales pitch; his attempts to live a life without cruelty involve him in the bad faith of work as a private detective, reducing the complexities of other people's lives to bits of information he can report to his boss and his clients. The same boss employs him as a disc-jockey, a job to which he is almost equally ill-suited—English sits in an almost empty studio in the hours before dawn, judging music by how much of his shift it can fill. The boss, who soon dies suddenly, is called Sands, the substance on which English builds his life.

Even after Sands's death, English continues, intermittently, with the assignments Sands gave him, wrapping his empty life around them. He pursues Leanna, the lover of the woman he was trailing; Leanna grants him some sexual favours out of compassion, while refusing him a commitment he is not entitled to ask for. He searches for the missing artist Twinbrook, and eventually finds his body; out of a few suspicions about survivalist vigilantes, he erects a fragile paranoid structure which leads him to a final bizarre act. When we last see him, English is in jail, occasionally visited by Leanna and avidly consuming cigarettes and carbohydrates; for the first time, his life is under a sort of control, if a perverse one.

The problem with this novel is the problem intrinsic to novels whose protagonist is seriously mentally ill; none of the other characters has all that much chance of living clearly when seen through his distorting eyes. Life seems arbitrary to the viewpoint character, because it is made up of the autonomous choices of people whom he cannot control and whose motivations he cannot begin to accept or understand. Johnson's portrayal of the madness of English depends so heavily on the portrayal of his egocentricity that it becomes almost moralistic, yet none of the other characters is ever allowed to be more than a counter in the plot.

Johnson does his usual skilled job of showing us the world that surrounds his protagonist—off-season Provincetown with its gay bars, fishing-boats and slightly vulgar resort charm—but he sets out to make the jaundiced eye with which English regards everything just another symptom of his disorder. We both see the world in this queasy way, and are made to feel guilty about doing so. Because of his sheer pictorial sense and his capacity to build a plot out of wisps of dialogue and incident, Johnson has the capacity to be a rewarding novelist, but the unrelieved air of gloomy disapproval shrouding Resuscitation of a Hanged Man leaves hero and reader alike feeling condemned, without hope of appeal.

Paul Elie (review date 13 September 1991)

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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. Accept that Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is willfully unorthodox, aggressively out of the ordinary. Though it probably will provoke many readers with its sensationalistic premises or its unyielding sexual politics, it is clearly a work of religious art—the odd contemporary novel that dares to yoke those words together and bear their double burden.

As its title implies, the novel is crammed full of morbid, paradoxical deaths and rebirths. The leading hanged man is English—a nervy, vaguely Catholic, Kansas-born drifter who knows himself as “one of those men in their thirties without much to recommend them” and who strikes others as “kind of always in the wrong lane.” Having survived a bungled “try at self-murder” a few months back, he has come East to try, through work and love and the sheer act of starting over, to put his life together again. But the place he has come to is the “phony peninsula” of Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the off season. With its shuttered resorts, its fog and wind, and its populace of Vietnam vets and cross-dressing homosexuals and parishioners “lugging themselves like laundry toward the big doors of the church,” the town has “every quality of the end of the line.” Work, for English, is a pair of squalid jobs—as a jack-of-all-trades at a small radio station and as a detective for its owner, Ray Sands. Love comes to him at first sight, for a woman he spots in church—but Leanna Sousa, in one of the bursts of idiom that give the novel its truth and life, tells him she is “strictly P-town.”

English's first task as a detective, it turns out, is to spy on Leanna's lover. As he trails her to a cabaret where people remake themselves as transvestites, as he eavesdrops on the lovers in bed by means of a mike-and-fishing-pole device, he thinks that his own attempt to remake himself in this seaside town has run aground: “He couldn't believe he was sitting in a tree with these items, which would be impossible to explain if anybody asked. … Hadn't his experience as his own unsuccessful hangman turned his life around? At what point had he gotten this corrupt?”

Soon enough, however, English's renewal forces itself on him. Or, rather, does he seek renewal where none exists? This unsettling quandary courses through the novel, established through a series of “reversals” (Johnson's word for paradoxes) that rule out any certain answer. Confessing to a priest soon after his arrival, English has mistakenly said, “I committed—I killed myself.” What died in Kansas was his old self; now, he tells Leanna, he feels reborn, overwhelmed by “this crazy feeling that I'm being called.” As such, he is alarmingly open to suggestion. When Leanna comically wonders if he is a “knight of faith,” he accepts the vocation; when he hears, at church, about Simone Weil's death by starvation, he concludes that they are kindred spirits, haunted by “vague hints from the periphery.” And when Sands assigns him to track down a missing person—a young artist named Twinbrook—English answers the call. “Don't ask me why. This whole thing has got me—I have to do something.”

The search for God's will as a detective story: by now such a conceit is as stale and facile as a Chesterton aphorism, and it isn't made any fresher here by an allusion to Graham Greene or a declaration that “the mystery is the Mystery.” But even as he draws on the “divine investigation” conceit, Johnson toys with it, exploring the ways in which such a notion can make itself felt. His own approach owes less to crime-story conventions than to bold thematic parallels, masterfully strung along as English's quest grows ever nuttier and more absorbing. Twinbrook too is obsessed with dying and rising: he has made notes for a book about reviving the dead with electrical stimulation. Sands suffers a fatal heart attack, prompting English to ponder life after death: “he wondered if a human soul drifted along these corridors now, but he found—much to his alarm, to his great anguish—that he doubted it.” Tired of gay life, Leanna takes him as her lover in order to enact her own romantic rebirth, which leads English to fear that “he might be living out some myth of seeking the goddess beyond the pale, entering the realm, being changed into one of its denizens, every footstep forward changing the shape of his soul. …”

Such frankly interpretive writing risks being too masterful, just as English's twin pursuit of Twinbrook and Leanna at times seems so perfectly intended, so symbolically right on, as to be suspect. But wait: each symbolic note is paired with an anomaly, each eloquent bit of self-scrutiny shot through with madness. Not only is English a lover and an investigator—he is also a would-be assassin, intent on killing the local bishop, allegedly Sand's cohort in a group called the Truth Infantry. Inexplicable and pointless, this obsession throws the others into relief, suggesting that the Gandhis and the Hinckleys of this world have lots in common—that even the fiercest ideas of self, life, and vocation may be delusions of grandeur. Johnson digs into the paradox relentlessly, presenting English as now crazed, now called: “What if a person heeded all such inner rebop, would he be damned or saved? Isn't it a matter of faith marching after the delusion? … You start to know these things. You make out just the shape of it, the incredible size, on the horizon.”

Making out the shape of distant things is the brief not only of madness, but also of art and religion. This Resuscitation of a Hanged Man does in a way that honors all three. Few novels have rendered so well the zany nobility of life on the edge. And the edge of the novel is that of religious zeal, a double-edge of sanctity and insanity. Sure, depicting a religiously obsessed protagonist as a madman is an easy way for an author to get some safe distance on him and his God-fixation. But this latter is a way out that Johnson largely refuses to avail himself of. Far from standing apart from his character or inviting his audience to do so, Denis Johnson draws us so close to this hanged man that we're made to share his obsessions—to pose our religious questions, as he does, for an omniscient audience, to wonder, with him, what it is to be a fool for God.

Jack Miles (review date June 1993)

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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 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, capable of much in the way of prose. Molière, in The Bourgeois Gentleman, reminded us that prose is what we all speak all the time, but those who live outside law-abiding society also live outside the more developed, abiding forms of the common language. Most of the time when we hear them speaking in extended prose, we sense either enormous poverty of expressive means or a degree of falsification. Thanks to Norman Mailer, we have now heard Jack Abbott at length, but who really believed Abbott's prose? The events (few enough) that his In the Belly of the Beast reported may have been authentic, but the language in which he delivered his report was not. Abbott, with Mailer's encouragement, had falsified himself. As for deliberate fictions, long fictional statements from inside the imagined criminal mind rarely accord very well with the encounters with violent criminals which, in America, so many of us have had. We remember those who have threatened us as disjointed and broken in speech and brain—intense, perhaps, but too anger-blinded for Aristotelian beginnings, middles, and ends.

What the criminally violent are capable of, however—and Johnson seems to begin here—is a fragmentary kind of poetry: the isolated, disconnected, shattered and shattering one-liner that provides simultaneously a glimpse into the criminal's mind and a glimpse into the society that helped make him. Johnson's gift is the ability to remember or coin such lines and set them in his narrative to revelatory effect. Don DeLillo, to name another fine writer who has dealt effectively with violence and with the menacing, menaced side of American life, has written some sentences that land like blows. The Johnson sentences I have in mind are more crystalline. They splash and shatter on impact, like a drink flung in the face. They dazzle and slice. This is so because the speaker in a Johnson story, when he manages such a line, immediately loses his own conscious control over it. He himself may be overcome by what he has just said, but his awareness is so momentary that he doesn't know why he is overcome. He cannot, as we say, “hold the thought,” not even when its passage through his mind leaves him deeply disturbed. In this way, as I said at the start, Johnson preserves the voice and perspective of the criminally violent. He doesn't turn those miraculous one-liners into any richer, more reasoned, calmed down, smoothed out, reliably and progressively self-explanatory inner monologue. The monologues he produces are excited, even overexcited, but truncated. His diction, sentence by sentence, may soar above the vernacular, but, by his design, nothing his characters ever see or say quite goes anywhere. Their speeches stall on takeoff—and therein lies the deeper realism of his imagination of them.

In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the first story in Johnson's new collection, Jesus' Son, the narrator, the hitchhiker of the title, describes a moment in the hospital after the crash:

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

The speaker of these words, thinker of these thoughts, is pathologically without compassion: his moral capacities, if any, are switched off. He is also high on drugs: his perceptual capacities are switched on. He is the kind of guy who, sitting in a hospital corridor, would sadistically savor the moment when an unsuspecting widow went into a doctor's office: “Here it comes, man. Get ready,” he would confide to a stranger shrinking from the ugly, unsought intimacy. He would laugh at the sheer impossible volume and pitch of the bereaved woman's cry: “Fuck, man, d'you hear that? Fuckin' eagle, man!” I have met guys like that—brain-fried redneck surfers in emergency rooms. Johnson gets the deeply obscene mentality eerily right. But the language he uses is utterly beyond what would be heard on the scene and at the time. We rightly admire the best crime writers for capturing the lines perfectly at that level—Elmore Leonard's ear for the lowlife vernacular, and so forth. But Johnson is listening for something beyond the vernacular, especially when he closes with the mysterious and poignant “I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

The passage is linguistically unrealistic. And yet, in its brokenness, its brevity, and the sense it conveys of the speaker's opacity to himself, it is uniquely realistic about the character's inner life, not least his groping, plaintive openness to something still ahead. Moreover, that line—“I've gone looking …”—gives the story a sudden forward buck. After all, a man looking for the thrill of a widow's scream might do almost anything. What will it be? Johnson's stories are filled with a mood of ominous expectation, his own distinct kind of narrative suspense. If you've ever been in a store when someone walked in who you thought was going to rob the place, you have felt the kind of suspense I am talking about. Johnson's characters are dangerous in that way and compelling in that way: they compel your curiosity about them. Only on the last page of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” does the narrator tell us in so many words that he is an addict. The brief conclusion to the story opens: “Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital …” A nurse gives the narrator an injection.

“These are vitamins,” she said, and drove the needle in.

It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

We were expecting no such help. Midway in his half answer to our question about his narrator's identity, Johnson forces us to another question: What kind of man is this, that he thinks we expect him to help us? But even as the strangeness of the narrator is underlined, his connection to us is insisted on by his direct address to us: “You, you ridiculous people.”

Johnson is not writing about spectacular grotesques; he is writing about society. His second novel, Fiskadoro, opened with the following unlikely paragraph of acknowledgments:

A good deal of the inspiration for this story came from the works of Ernest Becker, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Marcel Griaule, Alfred Metraux, Oliver Sacks, and Victor W. Turner. With the caution that this book doesn't offer to represent their thinking, I want to acknowledge my debt to these students and teachers of humankind.

Though the least didactic or bookish of storytellers, Johnson has an anthropological vision. He sees his hitchhiker as a member of a class, cut off from other classes and from normal life, to be sure, but engaging in a kind of intermittent commerce across the border. The criminal population of the United States may well be what is anthropologically most distinctive about our society. Johnson seems to me to have this possibility continually and vividly in mind.

In opposing Johnson's fragmented, poetic prose to what most others write about crime in America, I am aware that neither as a fact of life nor as a technique in art is fragmentation headline news. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”: yes, yes, how many times do we have to be told? But what separates Johnson from, say, William Burroughs, another writer who has gone deep into the drug-altered criminal mind, is Johnson's determination not to celebrate the mentally or socially centrifugal. Burroughs exults in all this; Johnson does not.

What Johnson refrains from doing is thus just as important as what he does. Burroughs, not to reduce him to a foil, has always struck me as a thrill-seeker. What is grating about his work is the absence from it of ordinary violence, the kind that comes prowling after people like you and me, the kind whose possibility we are always allowing for, changing our route to avoid, adjusting our schedule to anticipate. This is the anthropologically significant, American-to-the-core violence, the kind that every year strikes down a cohort of inadequately coached foreigners. Johnson's violence is just that kind—nothing exotic, the kind of violence suburban neighbors shake their heads over. And rather than revel in the moment when criminals and drug addicts cast off all restraint and plunge nihilistically into this violence, Johnson describes it with tremendous restraint, often more by allusion than by direct description.

He builds greatest emotion into the occasional poignant moments when his plungers, drowning, try to swim back to the surface. In the story “Dundun” the narrator, whose nickname (which he regrets rather than rejects) is “Fuckhead,” has evanescent hopes of this sort. Dundun has shot McInnes, who gave Fuckhead his nickname. Fuckhead, as he drives Dundun and McInnes to the emergency room, thinks to himself,

I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked.

Or consider the following, from the story “Emergency”:

“I want to go to church,” Georgie said.

“Let's go to the county fair.”

“I'd like to worship. I would.”

“They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society,” I said.

“I need a quiet chapel about now.”

The cross-purposes in that exchange remind one of Pinter, but of a Pinter with a little more heart than the actual Pinter usually seems to have.

Moments like these say something as well about Johnson's sympathy with religion. “God is a crutch,” I read once on a men's-room wall at Loyola University of Chicago, “but mankind has a broken leg.” Johnson's characters have breaks in worse places, and religion appeals to them as a result. We are accustomed to narratives—like Norman Maclean's in A River Runs through It—that look back nostalgically on a childhood of faith from the vantage point of a sad but serene adulthood without even the possibility of faith. That seems somehow a familiar, almost an inevitable, journey. But Johnson writes of men who are pre- rather than post-religious, nostalgic for and despairing of the human as the post-religious are nostalgic for and despairing of the divine. For such as Johnson writes about, it is easier to believe in God than to believe any longer in man. There are two kinds of faith to lose, in other words, and each kind, lost, can conduct toward the other kind. In the story “Emergency” the narrator catches a glimpse through falling snow of a drive-in movie screen and thinks for an ecstatic moment that he is seeing a heavenly vision. That's how ready he is for such a vision, such a release. That readiness I call pre-religious. Post-religious is seeing a heavenly vision (or, say, an El Greco painting of one) and thinking, “That's like something out of a movie.”

Is this sentimentalism of another kind? If Burroughs moons over the badness of bad boys, does Johnson not sentimentalize the sweet, yearning dream of the good boy inside every bad boy? No, I don't think so. While reading Jesus' Son, I had occasion to read Randall Jarrell's Second World War poem “Eighth Air Force.” Let me use it to make a point about Johnson.

If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
A puppy laps the water from a can
Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
Whistles O Paradiso!—shall I say that man
Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?
The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers! … Still, this is how it's done:
This is a war. … But since these play, before they die,
Like puppies with their puppy; since, a man,
I did as these have done, but did not die—
I will content the people as I can
And give up these to them: Behold the man!
I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,
Many things; for this last saviour, man,
I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.

A brilliant poem; but Johnson does not forgive his criminals as Jarrell forgives his soldiers, and for good reason: soldiers are not criminals. Soldiers have been forced into temporarily actualizing the potential for violence that is in us all: “Behold the man!” But criminals, social conditioning aside, may well have made the temporary permanent and the violent potential the only one allowed actualization.

The sentimentalism toward criminals that we find in Jean Genet or Truman Capote is of just this sort. I mean that they regard criminals as if they were soldiers, brave boys coerced by force majeure into taking up arms. Johnson neither excuses nor befriends his criminals. And the achievement seems to me the more considerable because he has as much tenderness toward them as those other writers have toward theirs. He is simply more exquisitely conscious of this tenderness, conscious enough of it that he can redirect it from the melodramatic surfaces of violence to the tragic core, from what criminals look like in action to who they are. Johnson makes no more of his characters' violence than he does of their ineptitude; in a way the violence is a part of the ineptitude, and therefore nothing remotely like a proof of valor or masculinity. In “Out on Bail” the narrator is talking to Kid Williams, a black former boxer with mutilated hands.

He was in his fifties. He'd wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who'd wasted only a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.

That is a telling, almost irrefutable way to have the “hero” admit that he is hopelessly screwed up.

Johnson makes a rare strength of what is otherwise his obvious limitation as a writer—namely, his disconnection from most of ordinary life. It is not only the Johnson protagonist—so often male, white, and near-criminal—who looks on the average American family as the average American might look on a family grouping of apes in a zoo. This is also the hypersensitivity of the writer in action. Many a writer has found the happy twaddle of family life rebarbative. Many an American writer has found real American families as gross and vulgar as television sitcom families. Johnson's characters are also strangers to the brisk and busy world of American work. But, again, many an American writer has recoiled from that world, feared it, disdained it, viewed it from afar. However, a fusion of the writer's antisocial tendencies with the criminal's sociopathic ones—if that is what we have here—works better in brief, icy blasts than over the longer cycle of the novel. In the longer form those cultural absences (or, at best, inverse presences) begin to cost more and pay less.

Nevertheless, I find Johnson's fourth novel, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), his most perfectly realized work. Its protagonist, Leonard English, is a paranoid schizophrenic who, recovering after a failed suicide attempt (he tried to hang himself), found his way into audio electronics in Lawrence, Kansas. At an equipment convention he met and was hired by a private investigator from Provincetown. Soon after the story opens, the strangeness of the Provincetown sexual culture begins to rub English's sexual anxieties raw, but of greater final moment is the paramilitary organization he stumbles upon. Johnson plays that larger, collective paranoia brilliantly against English's personal fears. The interplay, moreover, creates a context of craziness in which a Kierkegaardian question can arise about illusory health and paradoxical sickness in religion. English begins falling in love with a lesbian whom he meets after church (and later observes, incidentally, on his first surveillance assignment). Talk with her turns to religion.

“I don't care about infallibility. I'm not really interested in abortion. It confuses me, all that shit. The Pope confuses me. I just—” He thought he might as well. “There's really only one question.”

“What's that?”

“Did God really kill Himself?”

Leanna wasn't smiling now. She was staring at him, but softly. “Who are you?” she asked him.

Whatever she meant by the question, he didn't want to answer it. He wiped his face with his napkin, and in reference to the warmth of the place said, “Man.”

“If you took off your jacket, you'd be cooler.”

“For some reason, I usually keep it on. I don't know why.”

“It's your armor. You're a knight, huh?”

“I'm a knight of faith,” he confessed suddenly. He'd never said anything like this to anybody before.

She looked at him. A frail light shone out of her, this he would have sworn. “I know you are,” she said. She sipped her tea, but he happened to know her cup was empty.

In this dialogue everything moves a little more slowly than it does in the extraordinarily condensed exchanges and sudden reverses of Jesus' Son. The slower pace is necessary for the novel; and yet perhaps for most readers the strangeness of the character—a failed suicide secretly preoccupied with the Crucifixion—and of his interactions with others is too much to endure at novelistic length. Jesus' Son is barely half as long as Resuscitation; and though reviewers have properly noted connections from one story to the next, it is at least equally important that climax and release come at the end of each brief unit. The intensity is such that the release is necessary. The less intense Resuscitation may have lost readers by providing no such moments of escape.

A final word about how characterization and style interact in Jesus' Son. Without ever being chummy, Johnson's characters are prone to making intermittent, abrupt, unnerving direct addresses to the reader. The presence of these moments in the text makes those other, more shattering, poetically charged moments seem secret and intimate rather than public and formal, as the compression and heightening of the language otherwise would make them. In the story “Beverly Home,” which is particularly rich in such moments and perhaps, on balance, the most striking story in the collection (it recently appeared in the Paris Review), Johnson's narrator describes a patient in a nursing home.

His name was Robert. Each day Robert dressed himself in a fine suit, or a blazer-and-trousers combination. His hands were eighteen inches long. His head was like a fifty-pound Brazil nut with a face. You and I don't know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.

How different the effect of this paragraph would be without the use of the second-person pronoun. And yet how completely clear of faked intimacy the style is. You feel at this point closer to the narrator than you might like to feel, but to have created that sense of simultaneous closeness and recoil is a stunning achievement on Johnson's part. “Fifty-pound Brazil nut with a face” is just the kind of cruel, brief, inspired line that a sociopath might speak. The line is realistic in that regard but set within the narrative in a way that creates both an extraordinary reach, or address, to the reader and a heartbreaking sense of the buried capacity in the speaker for another kind of relationship with the sufferer, Robert, and with himself.

Or consider, from the same story, the following description:

He was only thirty-three, I believe he said, but it was hard to guess what he told about himself because he really couldn't talk anymore, beyond clamping his lips repeatedly around his protruding tongue while groaning.

No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.

The subject matter of the first sentence is so horrifying that the verbal perfection of it goes almost unnoticed. In sentence after sentence Johnson marries each word beautifully to each preceding or following word, with never an unpronounceable consonantal doubling (like “America's smallest state”). And the rhythms, the music, are as smooth as the images are fresh.

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 still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.

Perhaps only John Updike can match the sheer virtuosity of this, but Updike never veers so near the wild, schizophrenic edge. Updike does this sort of thing genially, as a happy, generous performer might offer a second encore. Johnson has a character do it, at least in the first-person stories of Jesus' Son, and the character doesn't know quite why he's doing it, even when he addresses us directly. As a result, the beauty has a sinister, surreal sheen to it.

Denis Johnson's path as a writer—from poetry to the novel to the short story—is as untypical as his vision, but Jesus' Son may eventually be read not just as a moment in his evolution but as a distinctive turn in the history of the form. He is doing something deeply new in these stories, and the formal novelty brings us into a new intimacy with the violence that is rising around us in this country like the killing waters of a flood.

John Sutherland (review date 2 July 1993)

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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). 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 story, and mysteriously comes back to life in the next. Some of the stories are nightmarish—the first narrates a particularly unpleasant car crash from which the hitchhiking hero walks away, leaving behind a mess of blood, metal and bone. Drunks are lucky. In another story, a patient walks into a hospital emergency room with a “hunting-knife kind of thing” sticking out of his eye (his one good eye, it emerges). Mostly, however, the narrator looks at the world with the whimsicality of the professional inebriate. “Happy Hour” describes that daily American ritual with the detached gaze of a Martian and a vocabulary reduced to its bare elements by a drinking day that has started considerably earlier:

The motor traffic was relentless, the sidewalks were crowded, the people were preoccupied and mean, because Happy Hour was also Rush Hour.

During Happy Hour, when you pay for one drink, he gives you two.

Happy Hour lasts two hours.

The story ends in a bar, with the hero buying a downer so big he thinks it must be a horse pill. He is put straight by the helpful nurse with the black eye who sells it to him: “For horses they squirt paste in its mouth. … The paste is so sticky the horse can't spit it out. They don't make horse pills anymore.”

It is only in the closing pages that the structure of the whole collection falls into place. In the penultimate story, the hero is in a detox centre, two days clean and sober. In the last, he is a “recovering” addict-alcoholic, several weeks clean and sober. These stories are, it emerges, what in AA and NA are called “drunkalogs,” that is, the experiences which members of the fellowship “share” with each other—reliving their past debaucheries as an educational experience for themselves and the group. The hero is not nameless, but “anonymous,” as the drills of AA require.

Recovering drunks are good storytellers. Anyone wanting the best entertainment available for a dollar should drop by any of the dozens of “meetings” available nightly—particularly Friday and Saturday nightly—in American cities. (British AA/NA meetings are less fun and probably best avoided unless you really need what they have to offer.) But there seems to be a cross-purpose in Johnson's use of the AA motif. For the faithful, drunkalogs are supposed to be a kind of aversion therapy. Here, they are suffused with a Baudelairen poetry and shot through with a comedy that makes drunkenness seem—as the title implies—a holy state. When Johnson describes night falling, you envy the drunk his gift of words and fancy that a liver and a few million brain cells might not be too high a price to pay: “The sky was a bruised red shot with black, almost exactly the colors of a tattoo. Sunset had two minutes left to live.”

Daria Donnelly (review date 13 August 1993)

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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 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 spiritual writer who has long been chronicling the drifters, desperate, addicts, and survivors of America. Jesus' Son, billed as a collection of short stories, is a series of eleven hallucinatory episodes, or stations of the cross (as James McManus called them in the New York Times Book Review), narrated by a heroin addict whom Johnson denominates “Jesus' Son,” after rock-poet Lou Reed's song, “Heroin”: “When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' Son.” The book's loosely connected drunkalogue ends with the narrator's fragile recovery among the mad, deformed, and outcast of a rest home.

Where O'Connor writes from certitude, the spiritual energy of Johnson's writing emerges from his incertitude. His doubt is generous and his art values the forgiveness that comes from not knowing the meaning of things. In a rare interview (Ironwood, Spring 1985), Johnson, raised in an agnostic household, talks about how temporality opened up a spiritual life for him. After learning that the paper on which his poems were printed would last 600 years, Johnson began to think about the future audience understanding and forgiving his characters in a way he could not. That distant audience increasingly became identified with God: “this perception became a real blessing for me” that “we are being looked down on, and understood, and forgiven even though we may fail.”

The power and strangeness of Johnson's storytelling stem from his confidence that the world is saturated with inexplicable meanings that are understood and judged outside this world: “What appears to be is actually happening. This is the real world, and very likely all there is, but it has tremendous meaning.” Johnson neither professes to know nor, in his fiction, desires to sort out those meanings; it is this passive hopefulness that makes the writing both disturbing and consoling.

Johnson's narrator reflects his stance. Gifted at seeing into the future, the narrator can do nothing to change what he sees coming. At times his addiction seems symptomatic of his inability to care, at other times the necessary antidote to the pain caused by his perception. Johnson won't let us decide whether this narrator is a brutal drifter and indifferent chronicler of the violence he keeps surviving—car crashes, knifings, shootings, and overdoses—or whether he is an angel, like those in the movie Wings of Desire, who limits his consciousness in order to alleviate the pain of absolute perception. He is both.

Time is the medium of grace for Johnson and the temporality of his narrative is fluid. The narrator feels a car crash before it happens, feels the holy water years later. He never tells a linear tale. His companion Jack Hotel dies of an overdose in one story and appears alive, smoking heroin, in the next. This hallucinatory quality is both offset and sharpened by precise and weirdly comic descriptions and dialogues, as when the narrator's hospital roommate, shot in the face by his wife, instructs him: “Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I'm fine.”

Johnson, a former heroin and alcohol addict, deftly conveys both the sharpening effects of drugs and the dreamy lassitude they produce. As he brings his narrator into a shaky recovery, Johnson suggests that sobriety renders the world less spectacular (the narrator no longer sees angels or hears cotton balls talk) and more accommodating to reflection. This shift toward grasping the magnificence of the ordinary comes in the final story, “Beverly Home,” when the narrator, standing outside the window of a Mennonite woman he has been peeping at for weeks, witnesses the extraordinary but unspectacular act of her husband's remorse and her forgiveness expressed in the washing of her feet. Johnson brilliantly combines the narrator's peeping Tom pleasure watching her undressing her feet with his deep awe for this revelation of love. These stories are powerful because Johnson is true to the narrator's multiple desires, his lust as well as his thirst for meaning and for love.

William Blake famously said that Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it; novelist John Hawkes repeated the charge to an outraged Flannery O'Connor. With Jesus' Son, Johnson gives us a narrator who is of God's party without knowing it. The “Maniac Drifter” whizzes by O'Connor's Milledgeville, Georgia, with a spiritual longing and narrative power born of hope and doubt.

Sven Birkerts (review date October–November 1993)

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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. 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 out. She brought me here and she stayed around for an hour or two, talking to Frank Martin in private. Then she left. The next morning Frank Martin got me aside and said, “We can help you. If you want help and want to listen to what we say.” But I didn't know if they could help me or not. Part of me wanted help. But there was another part.

(From “Where I'm Calling From”)

The popularity of the Carver style has to do not only with its supple adaptability—its openness to the vast middle register of American speech—but also with the fact that it is the staple of workshop instruction in hundreds of writing programs around the county. His kind of prose is writeable, readable and teachable, and as such it has become a kind of norm, a ground base against which other prose options can be figured.

But it is something else, too. Carver's is a prose not just of hard knocks, but also of limitations. The tones and rhythmic cadences inscribe a near horizon, a circumference within which men and women are penned, wherein all human endeavor, subject to entropy, must take place. Carver's sentences, never mind the stories themselves, enact the middle and lower classes' vision of their own constrained possibilities. Read a few pages and you will see what I mean.

But why all of this talk about Carver? I suppose because my sense of the Carver “tradition” supplies the background, helps to explain why I was so startled when I read one after the other—coincidence—two recent story collections, Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Let me straightaway cite a passage from each.

I was oddly frightened and unconnected, but then as the snake passed, the black night turned purple and I felt such an infusion of power that I wanted to put down my rifle and dance a shaman's dance. I knew nothing was going to kill me on this mission.

If you tap into the purple field you get a sixth sense, heightened hearing, a field of vision that picks up anything that shouldn't be there, the smell of Charles, and even on some of the blackest nights on earth, I had the ability to see Charles in fields of purple—literally sense his location, see his energy and assume control of it and be the first to kill.

(Thom Jones, “Break on Through”)

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her so much power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

(Denis Johnson, “Car Crash”)

Jones and Johnson both write harsh and often violent stories about men in extremis—boxers on the ropes, drug addicts, soldiers in combat, the kind of people who move between bars, transient hotels, and emergency rooms. Both know how to bring a story to a pitch, raising the stakes and getting everything to hang on the turn of a card. And for this alone they are gravely compelling to read.

But the discussion of theme and character will have to be reserved for another review. What interests me about these writers, what makes me wonder if hemlines might not be changing again, is their narrative style, the kind of voice they are able to get onto the page. In each case—and I fear that short excerpts cannot do them justice—the Carver mode is conjured up, laid down as a kind of expectation, and then it is blown wide open to produce an effect that is the very opposite of what Carver generally achieved.

What do I mean? Let me try from another angle. The characters in Jones's and Johnson's stories are not, in premise, very different from those who populate Carver's world. They are more edgy, to be sure. Closer to drugs than drink—certainly in Johnson. But their backgrounds, their milieus, their favored modes of interaction all belong to that familiar world, as do many of their turns of speech. But where Carver gathers his stories toward epiphanies of limit—his characters are enlightened when they recognize what the world is really like and how one must make peace if one is to live—Jones and Johnson work for the opposite. Their characters amass a frustration and rage that force them out of the circuit of acceptance. Though they often go about their business in Carver's cadences, by story's end they have generally been thrown free—into ecstasies of violence, into madness, into drug-induced free-fall.

And here is the paradox. While the release of the characters often results in destruction and death, limits more conclusive than what we generally encounter in Carver's work, the language is pulled into a realm of near-vertiginous freedom. We listen to a Dionysian music, a keening beyond all strictures of sense-making. The stories in these two books—I sense they are hard-won—jolt us with their strange sorrow and dislocation and unexpected gestures of reverence. Singular, they defy all projections for the genre, a genre all but bludgeoned into banality by workshop instruction. Indeed, taken together they might signify something—they may offer diagnosis, or prophecy. But of what? Who will tell us?

Dan McGuiness (review date spring 1996)

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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 Nations Millennium General Assembly] from Denis Johnson. It's a hefty reminder that he spent a long time as a poet, before he became one of our more important novelists, before he became a short-story writer without peer, before he became a foreign correspondent. He's an inverse Hemingway of the visionary, going to real wars now after the interior wars have been won. Remember? “Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson, / and I am almost ready to / confess it is not some awful misunderstanding that has carried / me here, my arms full of the ghosts / of flowers, to kneel at your feet … My coat / is leprosy and my dagger is a lie; must I shed them? … I am here at the waters / because in this space between spaces where nothing speaks, / I am what it says.”

There are a few new poems here but they seem tentative, like he's warming up for something that will surprise him and us. How about a long poem, resolving the voice that journalism gives him with the interior urgings of those early lyrics? One of the new poems is called “Ulysses”: “The hull of the knife and the surf / of our hurting // The outrigger of the bullet and the whitecaps / of our mistakes // The Commander of Suicide / and the archipelago / of the mirror.” Look at all the room in there.

The modernists couldn't write an epic without God. Johnson has looked at salvation from all sides, has no terror of the infinite.

Scott Martelle (review date 29 September 1997)

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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 the land, much more than the culture, begins to transform the soul. Green slowly loses its sense of nurturing comfort and becomes a color that startles. Gray becomes a shade of expression, rather than a lack of definition. Brown is seen not as a sign of death but as a sign of sleep, with its inherent hopefulness that the land will awaken.

Two new novels, both set farther to our north, offer diverging perceptions of landscape and just how it infuses the soul. The first is Denis Johnson's mesmerizingly hazy journey through evil, Already Dead: A California Gothic, in which the mountains north of San Francisco are treated as characters, the only ones the reader is confident will survive this harrowing story. To Johnson, the mountains, with their ancient redwood forests and more modern stands of illicit marijuana, are part of the solidity, the literal terra firma over which his human characters roam like ants on a hill.

In The Long Rain by Los Angeles' Peter Gadol, the land southeast of San Francisco is less certain, more capricious. Sure, it will stand for eternity, but the problem is what it does along the way, as though the land is a willing conspirator with the Fates to blend a healthy dose of unpredictability and misery into the human condition.

Johnson has the keener grasp of the relationship between land and soul. Or perhaps it's just a more passionate perspective. In Already Dead, Nelson Fairchild, Jr. is a man treading life as if in a still lake: He can see shore but can't get there. His eccentricities border on lunacy, and he knows where that border is because his only brother, William, crossed it long ago, living now in a cabin deep in the woods, trying to avoid rays from the government radar station on a nearby hilltop.

The “gothic” in Johnson's title refers to the Fairchild family patriarch, Nelson Sr., alive but mired in that aching region of knowing he's dying and unable, for once in his will-driven life, to do anything about it. Yet he still controls the lives of those around him. Divorced himself, he wants to ensure that Nelson Jr. will not follow the same path, so he assigns Junior's inheritance to the son's estranged wife. If they go through with the divorce, she takes the riches, mostly virgin timberlands, with her.

So Junior, who spends most of his days in a wine haze, enlists a Nietzsche-quoting drifter he saved from suicide to kill his wife. He blames it on the amoral harshness of the terrain.

“At the moments most precarious for my sanity I'm lost somewhere on these back roads, teetering on these cliffs, witnessing this grandness and longing to match it with the grandest gestures, acts equally solitary and monstrous, things I can never confess,” the son says, then confesses anyway. “The wildness of this terrain creates and explains me as much as anything I've inherited or been taught. The shape of this land affords brash designs—no, demands extravagant pretensions.”

If pretension is the fronting of loftiness, then Johnson has filled Northern California with pretension's inverse. Even the town cop has a bleak soul.

Murder stands as the central force in Already Dead, but not in any traditional or predictable sense. The suicidal assassin Junior turned to—the perfect hit man, he figures, because the killer will then kill himself—subverts Junior's plan and changes victims. Instead of killing the wife, he begins killing Junior's family, isolating him. And there's a second team of killers—“the pigmen,” Junior calls them—who were sent to catch up with him too. They were hired by a drug lord to get in blood the $100,000 worth of cocaine Junior had failed to smuggle in from Italy.

The cocaine deal is part of a life pattern. At his core, Junior, a child of privilege, is a spineless screw-up. He has become a man of no moral repentance. His regrets are strictly personal: If results affect him, he wishes things were different. There's no redemption to be had, beyond a thin window of remorse once he thinks his wife has been killed. But even then, his thoughts are first for himself.

Junior is a reprehensibly self-centered character, not the kind to successfully anchor a novel. But Johnson makes the novel work largely through the ensemble cast of characters whose lives intertwine with Junior's. They are mystics and drug abusers, petty criminals and the dark-soured cop, as well as Junior's business partner in a stand of pot plants, a combat veteran-turned-surfer-turned-killer.

Johnson is a crafty writer, alternating between internal monologues and omniscient third-person narratives. His characters cross-pollinate the novel with human emotions and inclinations, from the mystical to the criminal, the addictive to the predictive. And time itself is a toy, shifting back and forth yet woven like a string of crochet knots.

Ultimately, Johnson brings a poet's eye and style to the novel, turning Baudelaire into a dramatist, except that these flowers of evil grow wild along the Northern California mountainsides. …

Together, the novels offer an exploration of the nature of land and of how landscapes shape lives and fates. For Gadol, the land is a teasing co-conspirator that keeps happiness out of reach. For Johnson, the land is the punch line to the cosmic joke: “… bluffs, there's something about that word that rings right, you can hear the grunts of God shoving those massive cliffs into place.”

Irving Malin (review date spring 1998)

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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 “in-betweens,” those people who still desire some tiny measure of grace. And in his new novel [Already Dead], he uses his heightened poetic language to shine light into his California Gothic. His rushing, driving sentences are a bit excessive, but they are saved by radiant phrasing, unexpected metaphors and strange beauty.

The two main characters—who are curious doubles—are Nelson Fairchild, Jr. and Carl Van Ness. Both are half-alive, ghostly “shades”; they are drawn to each other because they are “doomed.” There is, perhaps, a sexual attraction, but they understand their greater need to violate morality, their murderous and/or suicidal urges. They are, in Leonard Cohen's wonderful phrase, “beautiful losers.”

Words tend to inspire a sense of dread, awe, other universes that are filled with magical transformations and transgressions. Fairchild, who longs to kill his father and wife, thinks aloud: “When you die, your consciousness blanks out, but it resumes eons later, when the history of molecules has been revised enough to preclude your death due to those particular circumstances: the bullet hits your brain in this world, but in a later one merely tickles your earlobe. You die in one universe and yet in another go on without a hitch.” The entire novel tests the limits of thresholds (psychological, religious, linguistic); it explores the “brink of intelligibility.”

Johnson's California is, perhaps, a stranger land than Pynchon's Vineland; it is a miraculous realm, another “universe” in which transubstantiations occur so suddenly that we are never sure whether the big earthquake will occur. Maybe Johnson believes it is occurring right now.

Henry Hitchings (review date 16 July 1999)

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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, in a world you don't believe in”; their eternal odyssey is an exploration of the possible, or an adventure in the suspension of belief. At the heart of the narrative there is a savage revenge plot, but it is hard to speak of plot or narrative centre in any orthodox sense; the lives of burnt-out drug users are a subject unconducive to straight lines and orderly progression, and the novel's pages brim with hippie lore and karmic digressions, dislocated dialogue and fractured sensibility. The result is a loose but never incoherent story, best understood as a mixture of tribute and satire.

Johnson's writing does not wear conspicuous influences, but his tale resonates with tones reminiscent of Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy and Robert Stone. His prose possesses an uncannily compressive poetry. The sea booms with “serrated thunder”; a waking sleeper lies in bed “like a page torn in the middle of a word.” There is much in this vein—much that makes an ugly story strangely beautiful. In general, however, Already Dead is unforgiving. Johnson ploughs bushels of stodgy philosophy into the novel; there is too much undigested Nietzsche, too much questing after metaphysical verities. It is hard not to admire the skill in individual sentences and the passionate precision with which the author has observed the world he reproduces, but sympathy is never quite engaged by his characters and their patter of dark-edged uncertainties.

David L. Ulin (review date 25 June 2001)

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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 without thinking about it; if I need help, I won't be looking to a flier in the newspaper, and anyway, the Motorcycle Church of Christ? But this day, I'm feeling buffeted, aswirl in signs and incantations, indications that there's something bigger going on. On my walk to the newsstand, I'd seen a young girl wearing an athletic department T-shirt, only instead of “Property of USC” or “Property of L.A. Dodgers,” it screamed out “Property of God.” Weirder, though—chilling, even—is this: When I left the house, I was in the midst of reading Johnson's essay “Bikers for Jesus,” which recounts a trip he made to Newark, Texas, for the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally, a three-day evangelical revival featuring, among other born-again bikers, the selfsame Motorcycle Church of Christ.

Were I living in a different universe, I might call this a coincidence, the kind of synchronicity that arises when you have something on your mind. But in Denis Johnson's universe there is no such thing as coincidence, only hints, clues, patterns of connection that let us see the world in a new light. His novel Already Dead is nothing less than a metaphysical passion play, in which life and death, soul and substance, come together like the threads of an elaborate tapestry, until we're no longer sure where reality and illusion begin or end. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, meanwhile, posits God as the ultimate conspirator, less a deity than a puppetmaster whose intentions are never clear. What's extraordinary about this vision is that for all its spiritual uncertainty, it offers moments—flashes, really—of revelation, although it's up to us to decipher what those mean. Nowhere is this more deftly rendered than in Johnson's story cycle Jesus' Son, where a hopeless drifter, junkie and occasional criminal navigates a middle road between transcendence and despair. “What a pair of lungs!” he crows in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” describing a woman who has just learned that her husband is dead. “She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.” Such lines can't help but rewire our expectations, not only because of Johnson's willingness to sink down deep into the darkness but because, even in the throes of loss and degradation, it is often wonder that he finds.

Johnson's first book of nonfiction, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond, stakes out a similarly elusive territory, featuring eleven pieces that move fluidly, sometimes within the span of a single sentence, from memoir to meditation to reportage. Much of this material first appeared in mass-market publications—Esquire,Harper's—but to call Seek a collection of magazine work would be to miss the point. Rather, in much the same way as Johnson's fiction, the accounts here mean to get beneath the surface of their circumstances, to root out the ambiguities, the question marks, the inexplicable juxtapositions—those moments when, without warning, everything is cast in doubt. Don't get me wrong; it's not a metaphorical world that Seek reports on: From the shattered, warred-upon landscapes of Afghanistan and Liberia to the neo-hippie enclave of the Rainbow Gathering, these are actual places full of actual people, living actual lives. But if there are no ghosts wandering California's North Coast, no junkies having mystical visions in the backs of family cars, as in Johnson's fiction, Seek evokes an equivalent sense of rawness, the idea that, at any instant, we may step through the looking glass into a domain unknown. “Another night under a strange sky in a different realm,” Johnson writes in a dispatch from Somalia.

I listen to the reports on the shortwave of bombings, attacks, plagues, even witch-burnings (seventy elderly women burned in South Africa in the last ten months) and I feel I'm living in a world where such things are all there is … I've got a pocket New Testament, but I can't read much of it—because I'm living in the Bible's world right now, the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too.

The question, of course, is how we reconcile this—the desperate hope and the deliverance, the miracles and the attacks and plagues. For Johnson, the answer is a kind of studied incredulity, which allows him to approach most situations with eyes wide open and no preconceptions, other than those he needs in order to survive. In “Three Deserts,” he visits a religious sect called the Children of the Light at their fertile compound in the Arizona desert, where they live “as virgins and eunuchs in the Reign of Heaven … they do not expect to die.” Such a setup is ripe for skepticism, but Johnson goes the other direction, writing about the group's miraculous discovery of a freshwater lake 200 feet underground as if it could be luck or blessing, or a little bit of both. It's not that he suspends judgment exactly, just that judgment isn't what he's after. Rather, his purpose is to leave the question open and allow us to decide for ourselves. The closest he gets to any real conclusions comes in “Hippies,” when, reflecting on the Rainbow Gathering, he notes that “here in this bunch of 10,000 to 50,000 people somehow unable to count themselves I see my generation epitomized: a Peter Pan generation nannied by matronly Wendys like Bill and Hillary Clinton, our politics a confusion of Red and Green beneath the black flag of Anarchy; cross-eyed and well-meaning, self-righteous, self-satisfied; close-minded, hypocritical, intolerant—Loving you!—Sieg Heil!” Lest it appear he's exempting himself, though, Johnson soon reveals his complicity by ripping off an old friend in a mushroom deal. “Back at my tent,” he admits, “I dig out my canteen and prepare to split the stuff, whatever it is, with Joey while he finds his own canteen so we can wash it down quick. And here is why I can't permit myself even to try and co-exist with these substances: I said I'd split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I'll never stop being a junkie.”

The reason all this works is Johnson's honesty, which carries a sense of relentlessness about it. His “Hippies” riff is just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the book, he revels in the idea of being caught off-guard. That's a difficult trick to pull off, especially with nonfiction, where, in the thirty-odd years since Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, and other New Journalists first sought to efface it, the line between reportorial observer and participant has come to appear nonexistent at times. Yet Johnson gets away with it because, for the most part, his personality remains secondary to what he's seeing, the often fragmentary substance of the world. In several pieces, he goes so far as to write about himself in the third person, constructing a series of personas not unlike the muddled men who motivate his fiction, and even at his most overtly personal—“Down Hard Six Times,” about his honeymoon panning for gold in Alaska, or “Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells,” a reminiscence of his Boy Scout initiation, circa 1962—he maintains a reserve, a filtered quality, framing his experiences through some larger issue (self-sufficiency, say, or weakness) that goes beyond self-reflection or memoir.

On the surface this might seem to distance us from the subject, yet paradoxically it draws us closer by letting us engage with the material on our own. In “The Small Boys' Unit,” for instance, which recounts a 1992 trip to Liberia to interview military strongman Charles Taylor, Johnson meanders along, overwhelmed by African inefficiency, until the very notion of the interview starts to seem beside the point. He gets the runaround, he may or may not be arrested, he feels ineffectual in the face of poverty and civil war. What this does is lull us into an equivalent state of torpor, so that when Johnson finally opens up, it's unexpected and profound. “My parents raised me to love all the earth's peoples,” he writes in one of Seek's most ruthlessly self-lacerating passages. “Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming Niggers! Niggers! Niggers! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me.”

It's unsettling to read something like that—unsettling, hell, it's disturbing in the extreme. But it's also deeply meaningful, a moment that lingers, resonates. Once you get over the initial shock, you realize that Johnson's throwing down a gauntlet, not about race so much as about assumption, challenging us to rethink all the things we take for granted, to consider them from another point of view. In many ways, that's the defining ethos of the collection, and if any one piece reflects this, it's “The Militia in Me,” a response to the Oklahoma City bombing, originally published in Esquire in the summer of 1995. Here Johnson humanizes those in the militia movement by acknowledging his sympathy—not for their methods or their ideology but for their discontent. “This is a free country,” he tells us. “I just want to be left alone.” Then, he describes the ways our rights have been eroded, from the FBI's standoff with survivalist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to Johnson's own confrontation with an INS officer sixty miles north of the Texas-Mexico border:

“Can we have a look in your vehicle?” “What if I said no?” “Then we'd bring the dog over and he'd tell us we'd better search the vehicle.” “You mean he'd give you probable cause for a search?” “Just your refusal to let us search,” the officer says, “would be probable cause.”

This is dangerous work, daring work, not least because it asks us to think rationally about an issue so thickly layered with emotion there's very little room for common ground. “I believe the State should be resisted wherever it encroaches,” Johnson argues. “But the bombers of that building will demonstrate for us something we don't want demonstrated: There's no trick to starting a revolution. Simply open fire on the State; the State will oblige by firing back. What's harder is to win a revolution, and the only victory worthy of the name will be a peaceable one.”

What's most compelling about “The Militia in Me” is the sense we get that Johnson is walking an intellectual and emotional tightrope, suspended between polarities of belief. “I want to float above the fray,” he confesses, “want to be like Walt Whitman, ‘both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.’ But when the violence starts, I'm not aloof. I'm in the middle, pulled both ways.” Although in a different essay Johnson's confusion might be a liability, here it assures us that he's on to something—albeit something with a quicksilver quality. There's considerable power, after all, in watching a writer wrestle with his material as it rearranges his mind and ours; it's the kind of power that makes you trust him. Even down to its structure, Seek operates like such a line of inquiry, each installment building on the last. It's only fitting that “The Militia in Me” occupies the exact middle of the collection, where it can function as a fulcrum, just as it's appropriate that the other pieces form an ensemble in which ideas, references, even bits of narrative echo back and forth until some subtle harmonies arise. How are we to see the Rainbow Gathering and the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally if not as parallel events, a pair of traveling tent shows meant to offer solace in a universe of faith and terror? And how should we read the militia movement's don't-tread-on-me rhetoric and Johnson's desire for solitude except as the public and private faces of a single impulse, the need to preserve some space, some identity, against a society gone out of control?

If any resolution can be drawn from this, it's an elliptical one, although that, too, seems fitting in the end. What Johnson is saying is that every one of us, regardless of allegiance or background, is equally lost, equally longing, equally hungry for meaning in our lives. Were this an earlier age, we might look to church or state or family for connection; but we live in a time when those systems have long since failed us, leaving us adrift. Given such a world, it probably makes less difference what answers we come up with than which questions we choose to raise in the first place. It's tempting to regard this as a form of nihilism, and there's some nihilism in it, to be sure. But Johnson's peculiar, even visionary, genius is how he turns that around on us, until we have no choice but to reassess our terms. Is it nihilism to imagine abortion-clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph's retreat to the caves of North Carolina as a symbolic return to the womb? Or to acknowledge, as Johnson does more than once here, his sense of failure in the face of circumstance, his feelings of being overwhelmed? No, for Johnson, this is all simply part of the picture, which comprises equal parts light and darkness, heaven and hell. His is a universe where patterns manifest themselves in the most unlikely places. Even a flier from the Motorcycle Church of Christ.

Timothy L. Parrish (essay date fall 2001)

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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 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 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 nonetheless pursuing an ideal of transcendence and even grace. In Johnson's fiction murder is often a seductively appealing and even morally desirable act, because through it his characters strive at once to fulfill and to abandon their destinies in a single moment. In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Leonard English seeks this self-consummation through his search for a dead man who he thinks might be his double. He finds his double but fails in his quest, which ends with his dressing as a woman and vainly attempting to assassinate a bishop. In terms of the novel, his crime is not the attempted assassination but the failed self-transformation, a point that is reinforced by his comical disguise and his admission that he chose the wrong victim to murder. The novel concludes with English condemned to enact a debased sacrament: he is on his knees gratefully consuming mouthfuls of Wonder Bread, realizing that “he liked being hungry and in prison” (257). His terrible fate rivals that of a character in The Stars at Noon whose “time on Earth” causes him “to be put here with his dreams, but not himself, made substance” (181). In Johnson's fictional universe, whether one is slayer or slain, the least desirable fate is to remain who one is.

Johnson's work consistently explores how an act of destruction can become an act of creation. His ambitious novel Fiskadoro, portrays this process as if it were the principle of civilization itself. The narrative enacts this principle: It is told from the perspective of the future that looks back on how the past (our present) was destroyed to create a world that the readers cannot fully comprehend. Offering itself as a kind of replacement for texts that we would know as the Koran or the Bible, Fiskadoro's central wisdom is that “to concern ourselves too greatly with the past is a sin, because it distracts our mind from the real and current blessing being showered down on us in every heartbeat out of the compassion and mercy and beauty of Allah” (12). That passage accommodates Fiskadoro's reader to the destruction of his or her world, but it also provides a perspective crucial to understanding Johnson's work as a whole: the destruction of the past or even the present is not to be feared but embraced as the transformation necessary to the completion of one's being. Whether it be Nelson Fairchild, Jr. in Already Dead or the nameless narrator of Jesus' Son, the narrative motivation for Johnson's characters generally involves confronting the sensation of feeling that they are between lives.1 Believing that their acts of violence presage the desired new beginning, Johnson's characters intuit the sort of connection between violence and the sacred that Rene Girard describes in Violence and the Sacred. For Girard as for Johnson, violence and the sacred are inseparable. Neither writer understands the desire to commit violence as something that can be escaped; rather, we learn to contain violent acts, ironically, only through other self-consciously violent acts. Over and over again Johnson's characters enact Girard's dictum that “violence will come to an end only after it has had the last word and that word has been accepted as divine” (135).

If Girard helps in understanding how Johnson's aesthetic interest in transformation aspires to reach what must be described as divine, then perhaps the most remarkable thing about Johnson's work thus far is how little critical attention it has received.2 Indeed, the preceding critical summary of Johnson's prose work to date is meant to provide a critical context for considering his beautiful, disturbing collections of stories, Jesus' Son.3 Despite receiving positive book reviews, various prestigious grants, and the imprimatur of Harold Bloom, who includes three of Johnson's works—Jesus' Son among them—in his Great Western Canon, Johnson's work remains unknown to most academic readers. Possibly, his interest in wasted, lost, drug-addled Americans who often turn out to be killers may scare away some readers. The reception of his work thus far points up the irony inherent in the fact that although what has become literary criticism originally began as a theological activity—an act of making sense of the word—contemporary critical practice is insistently secular. This is not to say that contemporary readers are uninterested in religion as a historical or even spiritual fact, but that many readers are likely to be made uneasy by contemporary narratives of redemption that demand participation and consent. Thus, I suggest that it is not the specter of drug use that vexes Johnson's fiction and perhaps even his readers, but the possibility of an unauthorized, alternative form of salvation outside the ingrained secularity of contemporary life. Johnson's fiction is unlikely to attract political readings not because an implicit critique of American culture cannot be derived from it, but because his “wasted” characters are so blissfully ignorant of their existence as social creatures. In Johnson's work, metaphysical identity invariably takes precedence over social identity.

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. Johnson's narrator thus confronts his audience as a way of confronting himself. At one point, a character asks the narrator if he has ever walked past a row of houses and thought, “Behind those windows, behind those curtains, people are living normal, happy lives?” (151–52). Although the work could be read as a gesture of conciliation toward an audience who does not and will not know him, it is also a kind of justification of Johnson's own aesthetic of transformation. In “Steady Hands,” for instance, the narrator asks a character to speak carefully because “someday people are going to read about you in a story or a poem” (130). Even if one must assume that the narrative persona of the book is invented, it nonetheless invites the reader to imagine the work as an autobiographical gesture. Just as the narrator moves from addressing his audience as “ridiculous people” perversely requiring the narrator's help to acknowledge his membership in “a place for people like us,” so does Johnson imply that in writing this work he has come to accept the kind of storyteller that he is. From that perspective, the book enacts the author's own reconciliation with the person (called “Fuckhead” by the other characters in the book) who was transformed into the artist of these stories. In “Beverly Home” the narrator's description of his relationship to the “circular hallway” in the hospital where he once worked may also be Johnson describing his relationship to these stories. They mark “the place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born” (151). Jesus' Son is a portrait of the artist on the verge of being born.

Focusing on the scattered doings of a younger, hopelessly lost, drug-addled narrator, the stories in this book are constructed of fragments, partial views, unexplained actions, and mixed-up chronologies. One story is entitled “Two Men”; but when it ends, the reader has met only one man. Several stories intervene before we are belatedly introduced to the other man of the title. The stories themselves never quite catch up with the perspective from which they are being told. Instead, an almost mysterious distance separates the action of the stories from their telling, one that the narrator seems to experience along with the reader. As in Fiskadoro, the narrator addresses the audience from a future that cannot be predicted by the content of the stories themselves. What holds the collection together is the narrator's ghostly, transcendent voice. Floating in a kind of limbo between the time of the stories and the occasion of their telling, the narrator seems to speak from somewhere beyond Hart Crane's “broken world” as if to bring to his audience vital messages that might have been lost forever. He writes as one who has been redeemed but is unsure of how to account for his redemption. Although we may wonder how the protagonist of the stories became the poet of their utterance, we also come to understand that the narrator's redemption depends on his convincing his audience to recognize the miracle of his arrival.

Throughout, Johnson employs a double-voiced technique that draws its force from the way the stories seem to be jumbled together. Instead of simply recalling the past from the present, the narrator insinuates the future into the past. Here I am not referring to the conventional narrative approach that creates a disparity between the present of the narration and the past it describes—to explain how then became now. In Jesus' Son the future and the present mingle in every sentence, creating a strange sense of alternative worlds coexisting, but we never see the moment of the narrator's resurrection. In “Dundun” the narrator looks across a bleak midwestern landscape devoid of crops or farmers to reflect that “Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history.” In that moment he senses that “All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come,” he adds, “but we had to wait a long time” (50–51). The calm of the narrative present mingles with intimations of divinity that the narrator experienced but could not sustain in his drugged condition. He positions his audience so that always we feel that something transcendent is about to be revealed, or already has been. Be patient and observant, we seem to be told, and the miracle will be made known to us as it was to the narrator. If the character known as Fuckhead could not withstand his moments of trembling revelation, then the narrative voice he achieves is a way of making his earlier flashes of illumination last. At one point the narrator walks with his lover “out into a town flooded ankle-deep and wide with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that” (65). The narrative of Jesus' Son forsakes teleology in deference to the mystery of the birth or rebirth he describes.

“Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the book's opening story, seems to place us in the middle of one such birth by beginning with three sentence fragments strung together by ellipsis points. The fragments introduce travelers on the highway; the ellipsis points suggest the intervals of space between the travelers who, unknowing, will come together through their interaction with the narrator, two of them literally and fatally in a terrible crash. The fourth sentence introduces the narrator: “… I rose up sopping wet from the rain” (3). The words “I rose up” suggest the theme of resurrection at which the title of the book hints, as does the water out of which he emerges. Writing in a clairvoyant voice, the narrator recalls the event as if he knew in advance what the other characters could not: “I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we'd have an accident in the storm” (4). His foreknowledge both exalts and terrifies him. After describing his ominously innocent meeting with the Oldsmobile family, the narrator doubles back in time to recount his earlier journeys: with a traveling salesman who was hopped up on speed and, later, with a college student who was stoned on hashish. The jumbled narrative conveys the narrator's scrambled mental state; but more than that it suggests how his previous experiences as they are remembered offer no explanation as to how he achieved the consciousness from which the stories are told.

Something similar happens to the readers of the story because Johnson transforms them into helpless witnesses—rubberneckers, one might say—to a tragedy that they are powerless to avoid. By the time the crash occurs, we have become willing participants in a story that we might otherwise turn away from. In a later story, the narrator becomes a voyeur and wonders if his audience should be startled at the extent to which he can debase himself. However, the irony is that Johnson has anticipated that question by making us voyeurs in the first story in a way that invites us to gaze at the luridness of the narrator's life. As a hitchhiker, the narrator presents himself as the outsider who has compelled us to join him. By no social logic does the heroin addict-narrator fit into the car that carries this “normal” family except through the family's act of good samaritanism. The man driving the car tells the narrator, “I'm not taking you anywhere very fast” because “I have got my wife and babies here, that's why” (4). Eventually, the car crashes—the husband dies; the wife is badly injured; we do not know what becomes of the children. The family is destroyed; the outsider, the drug-addicted narrator, survives—to tell the tale that he and we must suppose.

On one level, Johnson uses the incident to suggest that disaster is no respecter of persons. On a deeper level, though, he wants to terrorize the audience as he has been terrorized. He does this neither to hurt us nor to continue to hurt himself but to create a shared realm of compassion to withstand life's inscrutable misery. Consider this spine-tingling description of the woman's reaction to her husband's death:

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it. I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.


In part, as a reflection on tragedy and its relation to narrative, Johnson reverses conventional audience expectations. The woman's power over her audience derives from her ignorance of the fate that the witnesses know will befall her. When she screams in recognition of the arrival of the moment that the audience could only anticipate, she releases the audience from its sense of dread. Mystery and wonder accumulate in the woman's scream through the recognition that the terror of death makes possible the beauty of life. For the narrator and for us, her scream takes the beautiful arc of an eagle soaring; that is, her terror becomes aestheticized and released as something beautiful. Johnson's narrator aspires to elevate his pain to the majesty of art; he wishes to scream as she did in order to have the power over us that she had over him.

Yet, this lovely description of the woman's grief also risks being a cool act of disassociation by the narrator, because on the deepest level the narrator is at the time as unknowing as the woman: he hears the scream but does not understand it. The terror that the woman experiences contrasts with the numbness that the narrator feels at his own survival. His initial response to surviving the crash is to deny that he was involved in it: “When it was over I was in the back seat, just as I had been” (6–7). He tries to leave the scene of the accident. He is relieved to the point of being “tearful” when a passing motorist “endorse[s] the idea of not doing anything about this.” He then acknowledges his greatest fear: “I'd thought something was required of me, but I hadn't wanted to find out what it was” (9). Jesus' Son dramatizes the narrator's seemingly endless repetition of his many acts of betrayal, but with a clarity of vision that aspires to holiness. The act of telling becomes his way of finally doing what was required of him: bearing witness to the tragedies he has seen and in some cases helped to create.

The scene abruptly shifts from the woman's scream to years later in a Seattle hospital where the narrator is denying that he needs help with his drug habit while nonetheless being sure that boxes of cotton were screaming, “‘Help us, oh God, it hurts’” (12). By this time in the narrator's life the woman's scream had been transferred to the boxes of cotton because the narrator could not acknowledge that her terror, despite his survival, belonged also to him. The story concludes with his displacing his guilt and grief onto the audience: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (12). Here the narrator is concerned less with assaulting his audience's pieties than with challenging us to gain a clearer perception of the story than the one that he has told. Reading the book retrospectively, we realize that the narrator frames his own reaction so that his audience sees him in the same way that he and the others look at the woman. Initially, though, if your appreciation of the power and mystery and horror of the woman's scream depends on feeling separate from it, then, regardless of how you live and what you believe, you are pretty much in the same miserable situation as the narrator. By the time the narrator writes his story, he has achieved the compassion that allows him to deflate his romanticism. Or, to put the matter differently, he has come to accept that what may be required of him is to find an audience whom he can help as he helped himself.

The narrator's desire to crash into our world is reflected in his abiding fascination with those moments when one world impinges upon another. In story after story the narrator imagines “that the dead are coming back” (77). More often, though, Johnson evokes the pain that is felt when not transformation but only the re-enactment of some prior violation occurs. Describing the lost souls who haunt the bars of First Avenue in Seattle, the narrator speaks of how

[p]eople entering the bars on First Avenue gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself. […]


The obvious irony of the passage is that this collection of alcoholics and junkies cannot give up their bodies because they are chained to them by addictions that then become the physical embodiment of their metaphysical state. They are doomed to inhabit their bodies, exhausting the universe's possibilities until their lives are reduced to a single moment. More subtle is the suggestion that they are being punished for failing to come to terms with their choices in some previous experience or even existence. In “Dundun” the narrator observes of the murderer whose name gives the story its title that he “beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street of Austin, Texas for which he'll someday have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado” (51). As I have suggested, in Johnson's universe the most frightening form of death is not to lack an existence but to suffer the endless repetition of a terrible one (or ones). As the repetition of the name “Dundun” suggests, this particular character is doomed to relive acts that he has already “done” but has not transcended. Similarly, in the First Avenue bar the confrontation between mother and jilted child or rapist and victim evokes the terror experienced by the wrongdoer—the betrayer—when she or he must face the consequences of having committed a past violation. The bar, a version of hell, gathers these souls together to relive the moment that they can never escape. Sharing shots of drink and smack, they commit endless self-violations through their bodies, sending themselves doomed messages, trying to release imprisoned souls.

The name Dundun also carries with it the image of doubling. For the souls trapped in the bars of First Avenue “nothing could be healed, [because] the mirror was a knife was dividing everything from itself” (122). It is significant that in this passage the narrator imagines his kindred lost souls being made to confront the very images that have produced their self-divisions without allowing them an accompanying transformation. Those images become the knife that prevents healing from taking place, the mirror that shields each character from continuing his life. Johnson arranges the stories to reinforce that point. Lovett dies in the ironically titled “Out on Bail” yet surfaces in subsequent stories. Reappearing in later stories that describe earlier events, Lovett becomes a kind of ghost to the reader. The narrator reintroduces Lovett without ever letting on that he knows what we do. Thus we watch with mingled horror and fascination as Lovett repeats the same acts that must eventually kill—indeed, have already killed—him. Likewise, in “Dirty Wedding” the narrator is tormented by the memory of a version of himself that was never allowed to cross the threshold into being: the memory of his aborted child. He attempts to transfer the guilt and grief he feels for this experience to his girlfriend, who actually had to endure the abortion. “She was a woman, a traitor, and a killer,” he says, denying that he, too, has participated in what he understands to be a murder. After the medical procedure is completed, he asks her, “What did they stick up you?” (94). The mirror-knife that earlier destroyed life by freezing it in an endless present now becomes in this passage the knife that destroys life before it can even emerge. If the story's title marks the union that has occurred over the remains of the slaughtered fetus, then the story itself is where the narrator confronts the victim of his own crime.

The issue of the baby's continuing life is more complex than this quoted passage allows, for it treads on what I loosely call Johnson's aesthetic. Throughout these stories, as I have been suggesting, Johnson is interested in emergent forms-lives beginning, new worlds being ushered in. In “Car Crash” the narrator sits next to an infant in the Oldsmobile. After the crash he carries the infant about with him and tries unsuccessfully to leave the baby with a truck driver. The narrator never tells us what happens to that baby—perhaps because the infant is also the narrator or may be another incarnation of the potential child he loses in “Dirty Wedding.” The memory of that loss stirs him to try to imagine the consciousness of the life lost in the womb.

Think of being curled up and floating in darkness. Even if you could think, even if you had an imagination, would you ever imagine its opposite, this miraculous world the Asian Taoists call the “Ten Thousand Things”? And if the darkness just got darker? And then you were dead? What would you care? How would you even know the difference?


In terms of logic, what he asks makes no sense. What would it be like to lose a life you could not fully imagine, only to find yourself dead from a life that you never were able to experience? These stories are not about logic but about buried states of being. Of course the narrator cannot know what the fetus suffered, or even that it did. However, he can now imagine what it would mean not to experience the transformation that has enabled him to live in “this miraculous world.” In a sense, he overcomes the death that was his life to become the baby this fetus did not. The sense of innocence that permeates his prose allows him to describe the difference it makes no longer to be dead: to envision the miraculous world that exists side by side with a world of death.

“Emergency” contains Johnson's fullest exploration of this theme. In this story the narrator is working as an orderly in the emergency room in a Seattle hospital. A man walks into the E.R. with a peculiar ailment: a knife “blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye” (71). His other eye is a glass one. Despite the knife lodged in his one good eye, the man can still see, though he cannot form a fist with his left hand because something is happening to his brain. The doctor on call is intimidated by what confronts him and decides to call in an entire team—“a great eye man,” “a brain surgeon,” and a “genius gas man.” Before this collection of medical all-stars can be collected, the situation is unexpectedly resolved by the stoned-out-of-his-mind orderly, Georgie. While interested observers discuss various opinions, Georgie suddenly appears carrying the knife that a moment ago was stuck somewhere in the patient's brain. Full vision is restored to the eye; acceptable motor and reflex skills return as well. Georgie becomes an almost unwitting agent of grace, the innocent who confounds experience. “There's nothing wrong with the guy,” the nurse says. “It's just one of those things” (76).

Later in the story the narrator, too, experiences the power of “one of those things” as an intimation of divinity. After the shift is over, Georgie and the narrator decide to drive up into the mountains. High, feeling “like a giant helium-filled balloon,” they accidentally run over a rabbit (76). Georgie bounds out of the car to put the rabbit out of its misery, carrying the same knife that he had pulled out of the patient's eye. He comes back carrying several “slimy miniature rabbits.” “We killed the mother and saved the children,” he proclaims (79). As the rabbits' savior, Georgie believes a special charge has been given him. He plans to raise the rabbits on milk and sugar. The rabbits are temporarily forgotten, though, when the narrator suggests that because the snow is accumulating they should turn for home. Driving without headlights, and night coming on, they become so lost that they leave the road and find themselves moving over a field that turns out to be a graveyard. Out of the snow's white darkness a miracle trembles before the narrator:

On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there had been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.


Lost in the graveyard, the narrator sees that Judgment Day has come. What a sight! The sky is opening up to bring forth angels who will receive him as he wants to be taken. He seems poised to embrace what he most longs for: a vision that will take him out of his endless life. Were he to die at that moment he might think that his life had been redeemed—but probably not. As he admits, were he to evacuate his bowels it would not be because he died but because he could not overcome his fear. The “pity and light” he wants to experience he has not yet earned. Besides, as Georgie points out, the angels he sees are really movie actors; the graveyard turns out to be the parking lot of a drive-in movie, with speakers instead of headstones. “In a couple of minutes,” the narrator tells us, “the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath” (82). In other words, his vision is temporary, and he is returned to the sordidness of his life, alone again. This miracle lost returns their attention to the motherless rabbits at the moment the narrator suddenly realizes that he has inadvertently killed them. While dreaming of angels descending, he was giving birth to the rabbits' deaths. Looking at the eight corpses, which must recall his aborted child, he thinks “Little feet! Eyelids! Even Whiskers!” (84). Whereas Georgie can proclaim, “I save lives,” the narrator accumulates deaths: the family of “Car Crash,” the passenger he is driving in “Dundun,” the girlfriend who had the abortion accidentally kills herself. The death of the eight baby rabbits, which could not have been saved anyway, moves him more violently than any other incident in the book. It is as if he finally hears the scream that thrilled him in the book's opening story and is now at last moved to tears.

The disassociation between act and feeling that the protagonist has tried to maintain throughout breaks down in this story. By allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the pain he elsewhere tries to numb, the narrator depicts himself as one able to accept the experience of suffering as an inalienable truth. As the concluding story suggests, the narrator of Jesus' Son hopes like his namesake to adopt a perspective that can transmute the world's suffering by absorbing it into his own. “Beverly Home” portrays how the narrator identifies his experience with that of the audience from whom he seems to be excluded. That communion begins when the narrator walks by a house where he hears a woman singing in the shower—“a soft song from the wet chamber” that makes him think of mermaids (142). The voice calls to him and he finds himself drawn to her bathroom window. Catching a glimpse of her, he is so enticed by the experience of being a voyeur that he makes a habit of looking through her window. Fascinated by her life with her husband, he determines that they are a Mennonite couple and becomes as interested in their mundane daily rituals as he is by the prospect of getting “to watch them fucking.” He confesses,

I got so I enjoyed seeing them sitting in their living room talking, almost not talking at all, reading the Bible, saying grace, eating their supper in the kitchen alcove, as much as I liked watching her in the shower.


An attempt to see a woman naked becomes a fascination with a life from which he is excluded. Watching this couple every evening constitutes the most fully sustained relationship he has with anyone in the book. One evening, standing “outside in the dark with a great loneliness and the terror of a whole life not yet lived,” he thinks he hears them making love. Because the window is closed and blinds are drawn, he cannot see them. He feels “abandoned—cast out of the fold” (154). It is likely that he returns to this scene precisely so he can dramatize to himself the alienation he feels from any community that is not made up of outsiders like himself. Yet, his desire to see them couple reflects not only a desire to participate in their universe, but his longing to be present when people touch each other in a meaningful way.

The narrator hovers on the brink of recognizing his own complicity with what he views when he determines that the couple has not been making love after all, but fighting. He is startled when the woman suddenly draws back the curtain to uncover a face that reveals nothing except a nameless hurt.

I stood on the dark side of her and actually couldn't see her very well, but I got the impression she was upset. I thought I heard her weeping. I could have touched a teardrop, I stood that close.


The physical closeness between the narrator and the woman only accentuates the distance that he feels between himself and the world he wants to transcend. Obsessed with the idea that there is a world other than the one he inhabits, he finds himself peering into an alternative universe only to be confronted with a doubled image of himself. Johnson frames the scene so that the audience sees the Mennonite woman unknowingly witnessing a reflection of the narrator's hurt, just as the narrator recognizes his own darkness reflected in her. Thus, the phrase “I was on the dark side of her” connects the narrator and the woman. He projects himself as an image of her suffering. The hurt she sees in her own face is also a reflection of him.

When he floats in her outer darkness as vestige of her own pain—and perhaps that of the world—she is healed in a strange and moving ritual. Reversing the archetypal moment when Mary Magdalene washed Jesus' feet, the husband returns to end their argument by washing her feet.

Then she turned toward him, slipped her tennis shoes from her feet, reached backward to each lifted ankle one after the other, and peeled the small white socks off. She dipped the toe of her right foot into the water, then the whole foot, lowering it down out of sight into the yellow basin. He took the cloth from his shoulder, never once looking up at her, and started the washing.


This touching ceremony of healing is what the narrator has sought all his life, without finding. If the man's offering is a remarkable gesture of conciliation, then there is something mysterious in the woman's action. Why does she accept the man's offer? Has their difference of opinion been resolved? These sorts of questions give way to the eloquence of the act. She seems to confer grace on the couple merely by consenting to become a part of the ritual her husband initiates. The narrator and the reader join as witnesses and together wonder whether this scene of grace might also include those outside it.

As the book's title suggests, the narrator wishes to suffer the unredeemed penitent to come to him. The antecedent for the title, though, comes not from the Bible but from the Velvet Underground song written and sung by Lou Reed, “Heroin.”4 Like the singer of that song, Johnson's narrator is a heroin junkie whose apprehension of the divine derives from the rush he experiences when shooting heroin. Johnson places Reed's lines “When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' Son” on the page that precedes the title so that they hover over the narrative like an unanswered inquiry. These lines are as close as Johnson comes to explaining why the narrator chose to shoot heroin, and they also help explain why Johnson chose the title for his book. Reed's singer speaks of “trying for the kingdom if I can,” which means making good on his earlier claim that he is going to try “to nullify my life.” The music, insistent and beautiful and breathless all at once, seems to storm heaven as if to reclaim the throne that Milton's Satan could not. Reed, like William Burroughs in Naked Lunch, uses his art primarily to convey the sense of being high. As a consequence he is as likely to convert the uninitiated to heroin as to scare them away from it. Reed sings, “Heroiiiiiiin will be the death of me,” and it sounds lovely, perfect. Johnson's narrator, by contrast, overcomes the siren call of nullity to ascend to the kingdom of an angelic narrative consciousness. He associates himself with Jesus to evoke both his own doomed life—that his addiction to drugs will kill him young—and the fact that he transcended this fate. Not Jesus's biological son, the narrator transforms himself to one of Jesus's living spiritual heirs.

This son of Jesus ends his narrative working in a hospital for the aged, where part of his job is “to touch people,” that is, to heal others (139). Healing others requires that he walk against patient traffic, which “flowed in one direction only.” He “walked against the tide, according to my instructions, greeting everybody and grasping their hands or squeezing their shoulders, because they needed to be touched, and they didn't get much of that” (139). The man who in “Car Crash” rode against the traffic into collision and death now moves against it to make contact and provide restoration. Earlier he could not admit to being part of a story that included him; he now discovers his calling is to tell the story as the writer of the “Beverly Home Newsletter.” This homely medium predicts the artist of this work: he makes others aware of their existence and glad that their presence on this earth is recognized by someone else. Somehow, he has traveled far from that moment in “Car Crash” when he had stared at a dying man and saw in him that “the great pity of this life on earth” was not “that we all end up dead,” but “that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real” (10). The book thus concludes with a gesture that confirms the journey he has made and that he hopes his audience has made as well. “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat,” the narrator confesses, “that there might be a place for people like us” (160). If the narrator could not reach that dying man or his aborted child or Jack Lovett, then he learned it was not too late to learn to try to reach through us to himself. “That world!” he reflects of his past. “These days it's all been erased and they've rolled it up into a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” (88).

In these stories Johnson unrolls his scroll, finds that it belongs to him alone, but gives it to his readers anyway. He offers us the strange beauty of seeing life with doubled vision: how the world is perceived when a knife is plunged into your eye and how it is perceived after the knife has been removed. Either way, the angels that the narrator envisions descending from the movie screen may turn out to be sustaining and real. He is.


  1. Nelson Fairchild, Jr. ends up being murdered by the same man whom he had hired to murder his wife; moreover, his death is portrayed as the completion to a series of botched lives, and thus his soul has now been freed to initiate a new life cycle in some other incarnation.

  2. See Lenz, Reitenbach, and Smith.

  3. Philip Roth called Jesus' Son a “masterpiece” at a reading by Roth that I attended at Trinity University (San Antonio) in November 1992. When asked which young writers he admired, Roth at first stated that he no longer read contemporary fiction. Nonetheless, he then went on to single out Jesus' Son, which he had read in manuscript.

  4. Johnson's work borrows freely and often from rock and roll culture. In Fiskadoro, Bob Marley is referred to as a god equal in stature to Quetzalcoatl and Jesus. Jimi Hendrix's “Purple Haze” plays a key role in the narrative, as does Bob Dylan's “Man of Peace.” In Angels, the lawyer Fredericks suffers his realization that he wants to help murderers go free while standing under the knowing gaze of Elvis Presley, hanging above him in “iridescent paint on black velvet” (208).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. New York: Harcourt, 1994.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove, 1959.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1966.

Johnson, Denis. Already Dead: A California Gothic. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

———. Angels. New York: Knopf, 1983.

———. Fiskadoro. New York: Knopf, 1985.

———. Jesus' Son. New York: Farrar, 1992.

———. The Stars at Noon. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Lenz, Millicent. “Reinventing as World: Myth in Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro.The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature. Ed. Nancy Anisfield. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1991. 114–22.

Reitenbach, Gail. “Foreign Exchange in Denis Johnson's The Stars at Noon.Arizona Quarterly 47.4 (Winter 1991): 27–47.

Smith, Robert McClure, “Addiction and Recovery in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.Critique 42.2 (2001): 180–91.

Velvet Underground. “Heroin.” Lyrics by Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground and Nico. Verve 422–823–290–1 Y-1. 1969.




Johnson, Denis (Short Story Criticism)