Resuscitation of a Hanged Man Critical Context
by Denis Johnson

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Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is Johnson’s fourth novel and continues his exploration into the spiritual lives of characters living on the edge of mainstream America. Johnson’s four collections of poetry and previous novels have focused on misfits, people who cannot speak for themselves or articulate their experiences of life.

Johnson began his career as a poet, receiving recognition at an early age. When he was nineteen, his first collection, The Man Among the Seals (1969), attracted substantial critical attention, and his third collection, The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems (1982), was a National Poetry series selection. Yet Johnson always wanted to be a novelist, and in 1983 his first novel, Angels, was published. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man firmly established Johnson as a serious contemporary writer remarkable for the complexity and depth of the material he tackles in his work. In 1992, he published a collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son.

Johnson uses bizarre, freakish characters and incidents as more than trendy window dressing in his fiction. Through them, he explores the chaos and corruption of a modern society lacking a spiritual core. Johnson’s skill lies in making characters such as Leanna and Leonard’s crazed kidnappers transcend the absurd and sometimes incredible aspects of the novel.

Critics have remarked on Johnson’s fascination with such grotesque characters, suggesting that it is perhaps gratuitous, serving no function in his work. Yet Johnson believes that his concerns about redemption, punishment, death, and rebirth are best explored with depictions of people who are not ordinary but who live on the edge, their lives unstable and transient.

Interestingly, Johnson himself did not have a religious upbringing. In fact, his childhood was marked by a distinct absence of any kind of discussion of spirituality. His sense of God as an “audience”—a “future agency” looking down on humanity, with understanding and forgiveness—grew over time, in relation to his writing. Johnson has said that the only thing worth trying “is to try to reconcile the ways of God to man.” Resuscitation of a Hanged Man reflects Johnson’s understanding of death, rebirth, heaven, and hell on this plane, rather than in some distant hereafter.

Over the years, Johnson’s work has appeared in popular magazines such as The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Esquire, and his popularity as a writer continues to grow. Johnson rarely grants interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself.