Denis Johnson Johnson, Denis (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.”

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Jesus' Son 1992

The Name of the World 2000

The Man among the Seals (poetry) 1969

Inner Weather (poetry) 1976

The Incognito Lounge (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

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

Hellhound on My Trail (play) 2000

Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond (nonfiction) 2001

Hellhound on My Trail (play) 2000

Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames (play) 2001

Shoppers: Two Plays (plays) 2002

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 October 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Kirkus Reviews 60, no. 19 (1 October 1992): 1206-07.

[In the following review of Jesus' Son, the anonymous critic maintains that “Johnson's beautifully damned stories sing with divine poetry, all the while bludgeoning us with existential reality.”]

Johnson (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, 1991; Fiskadoro, 1985 etc.) brings together eleven down-and-out stories [in Jesus' Son] linked by their disagreeable narrator—a lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption.

Gobbling whatever drugs he can, the nameless narrator witnesses a fatal car wreck while hitchhiking and experiences a strange euphoria. His highs can be sharp, edgy, and intense, resulting in casual violence and emotional disconnectedness (“Dundun”); or sluggish, as he threatens to nod out before our eyes. At a local gin mill (“Out on Bail”) with his fellow losers, he ponders arbitrary fate among those who fancy themselves “tragic” and “helpless.” After shooting heroin with his girlfriend at a Holiday Inn, he finds his “mother” in an angelic barmaid (“Work”). There's plenty of drug-induced surrealism as well: a stranger, feigning muteness, hitches a ride (“Two Men”); a man walks into an emergency room with a knife stuck in his eye (“Emergency”); and a cruising salesman from Ohio pretends to be a Polish immigrant (“The Other Man”). In “Dirty Wedding,” the same narrator proves his cowardice and contemptibility while waiting for his girlfriend at an abortion clinic. “Steady Hands at Seattle General” transcribes a loopy, poetic dialogue in a detox ward, where the narrator meets someone more jaded and bruised than himself. In recovery, he works part-time at a Phoenix home for the old and hopeless—some so deformed “they made God look like a senseless maniac.” While there, he dates a dwarf, takes his Antabuse, and begins peeping on a Mennonite couple who live by his bus stop. All this to remind us that God shows up in all the wrong places, and angels are everywhere.

Blunt and gritty: Johnson's beautifully damned stories sing with divine poetry, all the while bludgeoning us with existential reality.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 11 December 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kakutani, Michiko. “Stories That Range from Bleak to Bleaker.” New York Times (11 December 1992): C31.

[In the following review, Kakutani commends Johnson's poetic language and utilization of metaphor and wordplay in the stories in Jesus' Son.]

The characters in Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson's savage new collection of stories, which takes its title from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” are all lost souls, waiting eagerly or despondently for salvation. Like their counterparts in Fiskadoro and Angels, they are sinners and misfits, the lost, the damned, the desperate and the forgotten. Out of their bleak, frightening experiences, Mr. Johnson...

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James McManus (review date 27 December 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McManus, James. “The Road from Detox.” New York Times Book Review 97, no. 12 (27 December 1992): 5.

[In the following favorable assessment, McManus provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Jesus' Son.]

Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is his fifth book of fiction, the previous four being novels with similar preoccupations: loveless promiscuity, the abuse of narcotics and alcohol, the debilitating effects of parental neglect and the sometimes violent paradoxes inherent in the Christian notions of salvation and self-sacrifice. His prose, especially in this book and in the novels Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, consistently...

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Marianne Wiggins (review date 15 February 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wiggins, Marianne. “Talk into My Bullet Hole.” Nation 256, no. 6 (15 February 1993): 208-09.

[In the following positive assessment of Jesus' Son, Wiggins asserts that reading Johnson's stories “is like living inside someone else's beautifully controlled nightmare.”]

In his 1980 Nobel Laureate speech, Czeslaw Milosz cautioned writers that it is not enough to denounce those who would align themselves with misanthropes and tyrants, but that we must broadcast the names of those from whom we have learned, in whom we have trusted and about whom we are reverent, whether as teachers and practitioners of art or as acquaintances through life.


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Todd Grimson (review date 28 February 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Grimson, Todd. “Don't Wake Him Up—He's Writing.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 February 1993): 3, 7.

[In the following laudatory assessment, Grimson regards Jesus' Son as Johnson's “most accessible and accomplished book, from start to finish, without a single sentence that misses the mark.”]

Denis Johnson writes as though he inhabits a waking dream. There is that wonderful sense of someone walking around in his own unconscious—you don't want to wake him up. There's plenty of knowledge of the outside world, he knows very well what's going on out here, but his intelligence, at its deepest, may be an animal intelligence. That is, an...

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David Gates (review date February 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, David. “A Family's Darkest Secret: Inside the Domestic Bonds of Love and Brutality.” Newsweek 121, no. 6 (February 1993): 67.

[In the following excerpt, Gates offers a positive assessment of Jesus' Son.]

In Jesus' Son, Idaho-based Denis Johnson's masterfully bleak sequence of short stories narrated by a young heartland lowlife, brutality is unpredictable and unremarkable: shootings, stabbings, guns held to heads, heroin overdoses, gruesome car wrecks—and confrontations that don't turn violent only because the antagonists can't stay focused. But scarier still is when the narrator betrays his chronic state of hallucinatory befuddlement. “It...

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John Sutherland (review date 2 July 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following review, Sutherland traces the theme of substance abuse in Jesus' Son, asserting that “Johnson comes across as a fourth-generation Beat.”]

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...

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Daria Donnelly (review date 13 August 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Donnelly, Daria. “Flannery O'Connor in Reverse.” Commonweal 120, no. 14 (13 August 1993): 23-4.

[In the following favorable assessment of Jesus' Son, Donnelly determines the influence of Flannery O'Connor's “spiritual vocation for the grotesque” on Johnson's work.]

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,...

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Daniel McGuiness (review date summer 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McGuiness, Daniel. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 405-06.

[In the following laudatory review of Jesus' Son, McGuiness finds a similarity between Johnson's verse and his short fiction.]

Denis Johnson's career seems somehow geometrical, graphable, perhaps parabolic: the poems at the start, the novels in the middle, the short stories lately. Whether the parabola sweeps to an apogee or drops like your phoneline under the weight of snow is a matter of personal taste, but the line's start and stop do, nonetheless, figure into something like equilibrium. It's the same blighted landscape of...

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Denis Johnson (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Denis. “Secret Agent.” In Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, edited by Will Blythe, pp. 98-102. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1998.

[In the following essay, Johnson reflects on the role of observing and reporting in his life.]

I'm remembering a time in Chicago. Down around Jefferson Street, some ways below the Loop. I couldn't even guess how far below now, twenty-one, -two, -three years later. This was the very bad wino district around 4:00 a.m. People without soul or spirit slept against walls or right in the gutter, as they'd been warned they might someday if they kept on … and they'd kept on. This dark morning I'd come here to...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Kirkus Reviews 68, no. 10 (15 May 2000): 655.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of The Name of the World.]

A traumatized widower is painfully and gradually recalled to life in this deceptively simple—and surprisingly absorbing—short novel [The Name of the World] by the well-known poet and author (Already Dead, 1997, etc.).

Narrator Michael Reed is a freelance writer and teacher of history who's attempting to lose himself in work—and various degrees of intimacy with colleagues (at a nameless Midwestern college where he had...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 15 May 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 20 (15 May 2000): 86.

[In the following positive review of The Name of the World, the anonymous commentator contends that “Johnson's eloquent examination of one man's persistent inability to extricate himself from the tenacity of grief manages to be both lyrical and raw.”]

Spare, introspective and arresting, Johnson's (Jesus' Son; Already Dead) new novel [The Name of the World] explores a middle-aged college professor's attempts to come to terms with the gruesome twist of fate that has robbed him of his family. After losing his wife, Anne, and...

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Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 25 June 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 June 2000): 11.

[In the following review, Reynolds differentiates The Name of the World from the rest of Johnson's oeuvre.]

Maybe you're already a member of the cult of Denis Johnson, joined when you first read Jesus' Son (coming this month to theaters near you). Then, perhaps, you were grateful when he wrote Already Dead, the funny but not ridiculous portrait of hippies in Northern California. It was so much fun to read. But more important even than fun is that Johnson, in his fiction, makes you nostalgic for something in yourself, some lost country in your soul...

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Robert Stone (review date 9 July 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Robert. “In Transit.” New York Times Book Review (9 July 2000): 5.

[In the following positive assessment, Stone explores the narrative line of The Name of the World.]

The jacket of Denis Johnson's new novel displays what might be a road or a set of railroad tracks disappearing into a whited-out middle distance. The road out of town has always been a major element in Johnson's work. His characters—often drifters, self-educated intellectual outlaws, vagabond poets—take their places beside the Old Highway in the dew-scented dawn or the early morning rain. Down the road ahead they find runic messages, brief encounters charged with elusive...

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Richard Eder (review date 14 July 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Ever-Widening Circles of Grief.” New York Times (14 July 2000): E37.

[In the following mixed review, Eder discusses the fragmentary nature of The Name of the World and questions the role of deliverance in the novel.]

There are a yellowed globe and an antique telescope in the living room of Ted MacKey, the chairman of the music department at a Midwestern college. They are elements of a mellow scholarly décor in which the guests sip hot buttered rum by a blazing log fire. It is Currier & Ives does academe, or, as Michael, an adjunct professor and the shattered narrator, remarks in The Name of the World, “a very...

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Economist (review date 15 July 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Perfect Pitch.” Economist (15 July 2000): S12.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic lauds the tone and pace of The Name of the World.]

It isn't easy to recommend spending $23 on 120 widely spaced pages, but there's a reason why literature is not sold by the kilo. In his ninth novel [The Name of the World], Denis Johnson purposefully takes on a slight plot, or what would seem slight, unless it happened to you. Having wandered from high-school teaching to senatorial speech-writing, in late middle age the narrator, Michael Reed, has forsaken Washington for the comfortably meaningless confines of an unremarkable, nameless Midwestern...

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John Updike (review date 24 July 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Updike, John. “Dog's Tears.” New Yorker 76, no. 120 (24 July 2000): 76-8.

[In the following review, Updike unfavorably compares The Name of the World to Johnson's earlier work, especially Jesus' Son.]

There is a kind of radiant prose, sparking in short circuits, that can be achieved only through a point of view that is youthful and stoned:

I stood outside the motel hitchhiking, dressed up in a hurry, shirtless under my jacket, with the wind crying through my earring. 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....

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David Gates (review date 31 July 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, David. “What's in a Name?” Newsweek CXXXVI, no. 5 (31 July 2000): 64.

[In the following review, Gates offers a favorable assessment of The Name of the World.]

Near the end of Denis Johnson's haunting novella, The Name of the World, the narrator says an odd thing. Our century, he says, “has torn its way out of its chrysalis and become too beautiful to be examined, too alive to be debated and exploited by played-out intellectuals. The important thing is no longer to predict in what way its grand convulsions might next shake us. Now the important thing is to ride it into the sky.” I've read this book three times, with my played-out intellect...

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Susan Yuzna (essay date 13 August 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Yuzna, Susan. “Reading My Life Between the Lines.” The Washington Post (13 August 2000): B2.

[In the following essay, Yuzna reflects on her relationship with Johnson and her role in the short story collection Jesus' Son.]

How should you act when you meet yourself as a fictional character? What do you say? Do you embrace yourself warmly, or pretend you've never met?

Her name is Michelle. She's the girlfriend in the new movie based on Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son. I haven't met Michelle on the screen yet (the film hasn't opened in North Dakota, where I now live) and haven't made up my mind whether I want to, but...

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Robert McClure Smith (essay date winter 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Smith evaluates the meaning of substance abuse and recovery in Jesus' Son.]

Denis Johnson is the poet laureate of the pathology of addiction. His fictional landscape is peopled by lost souls—the sinners, the misfits, the desperate—waiting for a perpetually postponed salvation in a haze of alcohol and heroin.1 Johnson's distinctive vision finds its most spectacular expression in the short story collection Jesus' Son, eleven interlocked tales narrated by an addictive consciousness...

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Irving Malin (review date spring 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 1 (spring 2001): 201-02.

[In the following review, Malin discusses the role of spirituality in The Name of the World.]

Denis Johnson is haunted by the ghostly remains of the Catholicism he once accepted. He writes about lost souls who cannot accept heaven or earth, and he recounts their desperate wanderings and longings in a visionary style. The narrator of this stunning novella [The Name of the World] is a middle-aged widower. He cannot stop thinking of the accident that killed his wife and children. He lives (or tries to) in the academic...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Feinstein, Howard. “Willing to Take a Walk in the Dark.” New York Times (11 June 2000): AR13.

Profile of Alison Maclean, the director of the cinematic adaptation of Jesus' Son.

Hooper, Brad. Review of Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. Booklist 89, no. 6 (15 November 1992): 579.

Lauds the “elegant simplicity” of the stories in Jesus' Son.

Kloszewski, Marc. Review of The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Library Journal 125, no. 14 (1 September 2000): 249.

Favorable assessment of The Name of the World.


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