Denis Johnson 1949–-
American short story writer, novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's short fiction career through 2001.
Johnson is recognized for his compelling depictions of isolated, degraded individuals who strive to attain spiritual fulfillment or transcendence in the margins of American society. Johnson's short fiction has earned distinction for the hallucinatory quality of his writing, his poetic, carefully constructed language, and the misfit, often drug-addicted or mentally unstable characters who provide honest, unsentimental insight into the lurid underside of contemporary American life. His reputation as a short fiction writer rests on the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Jesus' Son (1992) and his novella The Name of the World (2000).
Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, on July 1, 1949, the son of an American diplomat, and lived in various foreign countries as a child and adolescent. The exotic locales of Tokyo and Manila and the rootlessness of his family's existence later provided Johnson thematic fodder as an author. Johnson completed his high school education in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1967. Already an aspiring writer, he applied to the University of Iowa, well known for its creative writing program, where he completed his bachelor's degree in 1971. He earned his M.F.A. in 1974 under the tutelage of poet Marvin Bell. Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals (1969), at the age of nineteen, while still an undergraduate. After leaving Iowa, Johnson taught briefly at Lake Forest College in Chicago but, finding academic life unsatisfying, he resigned and left for the Pacific Northwest, where he worked odd jobs in the Seattle area. After the publication of his second poetry collection, Inner Weather (1976), Johnson sought treatment for alcohol and heroin addiction. He subsequently worked as a teacher at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, then, after receiving a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1981, he resettled in Cape Cod. During the mid-1980s, Johnson relocated to Gualala, California; in 1989, he found a new home in northern Idaho near the Kanishu National Forest. Johnson maintains a strong interest in contemporary music and film and has acknowledged the influence of musicians Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, and painter Edward Hopper. He has received much recognition for his writing, including a National Poetry Series award for The Incognito Lounge (1982); an American Academy Kaufman prize for Angels (1983); the Whiting Foundation award in 1986; a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993; and, in 2001, a PEN/Faulkner award nomination for The Name of the World. The latter was also listed as one of the website Salon's ten best fiction books of 2000. Johnson's 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, was made into a feature-length film, directed by Alison Maclean, in 1999.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Johnson's short fiction is characterized by its lively language and structure as well as its emotional intensity. His writing is fraught with often nightmarish or apocalyptic images of isolation and desolation and delves into themes of redemption and spiritual rebirth. His characters, who tend to live on the fringes of society, are violent, maimed, mentally unstable, or desperate. Jesus' Son is a collection of eleven interconnected short stories; all are narrated by the same unnamed (known only as Fuckhead) alcoholic heroin addict, though they take place in various settings and describe the narrator's assorted derelict friends. The title of the collection is derived from a lyric in the Lou Reed song “Heroin.” The characters in the nightmarish stories are all addicted in various ways, either to substances such as alcohol and narcotics, or belief systems such as popular culture or religion. Drugs and alcohol serve as virtually the only constants in the narrator's life. The settings of the stories vary—from rural Iowa to Seattle to Phoenix—as do the narrator's friends, and the reader learns nothing about his past. The narrator reveals himself exclusively through his words and his various incarnations. The characters who surround him are an assortment of lowlifes and losers, inhabitants of a bleak and often violent American demimonde. One of the most striking features of the stories in Jesus' Son is the incantatory, dreamlike quality of the narrator's voice. Although nearly every story recounts a gruesome or sensational incident—a horrific car accident, a bizarre emergency room case, a pointless shooting—the narrator's voice remains consistently matter-of-fact throughout the book. The novella The Name of the World focuses on a university professor's efforts to move forward with his life following the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident. For the first few years after the tragedy, the professor, Michael Reed, is existing rather than living. His experiences are punctuated by recurring encounters with an unconventional young woman—a cellist and stripper named Flower Cannon—who reminds Reed of his lost wife and daughter. At the novel's conclusion, Reed becomes a journalist and travels to cover the U.S. Gulf War, in an effort to escape his memories—or delusions—of the past. Both Jesus' Son and The Name of the World (as well as Johnson's novels and poetry) utilize the motif of dereliction and resuscitation for dramatic importance: “To go on living and to understand the past,” Johnson has stated, “is like taking up another life. It is like waking up after your death and being able to look back and understand.”
Critics consider Johnson a gifted short fiction writer. His only collection of short stories, Jesus' Son, has been commended for both its realistic and dreamlike portrayal of America's underbelly. Several critics also praise Johnson's lyrical language and his adept use of metaphor and wordplay. The autobiographical nature of the stories has been another topic of critical discussion. Despite the bizarre psychological states and circumstances that Johnson often evokes in his fiction, many reviewers note the author's uncanny ability to render such absurdity entirely plausible through his engaging storytelling and credible dialogue. Critics also laud the compassion with which Johnson treats his drunk, neglected, insane, or otherwise depraved characters. His novella, The Name of the World, has also inspired favorable reviews. Commentators deem the short novel raw and introspective and applaud Johnson's sensitive portrayal of grief and renewal.