Resuscitation of a Hanged Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Denis Johnson’s previous novels, Angels (1984), Fiskadoro (1985), and The Stars at Noon (1986), are as bleak and funny as Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. The thirty-four-year-old protagonist of this novel, Leonard English, is a genius of spiritual failure. He is a martyr to nothing but that to which he determines to be a martyr. He is also an experiment, and in this way he is like the nineteenth century murderer John Skaggs.

Skaggs was hanged for his crime, and English’s crime is to try to hang himself. Doctors tried to revive Skaggs’s corpse with electricity, and English tries to redeem his dead soul with a commitment to illusion. Skaggs remains dead, and English goes mad. Both are martyrs to the absurd.

The novel’s plot shows English straining to be meaningful to himself on the one hand and shows the secrets that people and God are on the other. Various images in the novel illuminate these aspects of the plot.

The story begins with English’s arrival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. His life in the Midwest has left his soul in dreary shape. He was for a time a salesman of medical equipment, and though it was a good job, it depressed him. What he sold seemed to him “more like implements of torture than agents of healing.” This impression turned to horror when he took part in cutting up live dogs to see how a “surgical stapler” worked.

After a failed suicide attempt, he takes radio courses and spends eight months interviewing crime victims for the police in Lawrence, Kansas. During this time, he meets Raymond Sands, a retired police detective, at a convention. The mysterious Sands hires English to work part-time at Sands’s radio station in Provincetown and part-time for Sands himself as a private investigator.

Unfortunately, English begins his new life unskilled to perform the work he is required to do; he is drunk as well, and his soul is dead. Having wrecked his car on the Cape in the middle of the night, he is directed by a friendly cabdriver to a dull room for rent. He goes to confession, which fails, though he is a Catholic, to absolve him of his despair.

English meets another Catholic, Leanna Sousa, a lesbian. She becomes a critical, if absurd, objective in his quest for grace. Since he is by nature a devotee of the improbable, he abuses his self-respect in order to breach Leanna’s defenses. He does, in fact, win her love, but not on his terms.

Meanwhile, between late-night shifts at the radio station and between editing the tapes of interviews there, he does surveillance for Sands. He is sent to spy on Marla Baker, a middle-aged lesbian whose husband wants to keep track of her. The assignment is as lonely and demeaning as anything that English has done; it is made even more so when English finds that Marla replaces her lover Carol now and then with Leanna.

Rather because of his secret knowledge of Leanna than in spite of it, English tightens his relationship with her. Also, Sands invites his intimacy. At a New Year’s Eve dinner at Sands’s house, English meets Sands’s wife Grace, who is senile to the point of talking at random and mistaking a nephew, Bud, for the son she and her husband never had.

English is led to believe as well that Sands has something to do with a group of Vietnam War veterans, which English thinks, wrongly, it turns out—or seems to—is a paramilitary cadre called the Truth Infantry.

Before Sands dies of a heart attack, which occurs while English and Leanna are viewing a film in Hyannis, English is assigned to uncover the whereabouts of Gerald Twinbrook, a painter of listless, light-haunted landscapes inhabited by faceless people.

Because English (whose work for Sands and whose own impulse to find meaning have turned him into a mournful snoop) has taken several doctored passports from Sands’s desk, he is kidnapped. Beaten into admitting his theft, and swearing that he has thrown the passports into a sewer, English assumes that his abductors are part of the Truth Infantry. Most likely because he is wrong about this, as he is about whatever he takes from common sense and feeds to imagination, he is freed.

Mutally aroused by the violence and degradation of this experience, he and Leanna become lovers, but English is not content. True to his need to believe in the divine, he must turn Leanna into a goddess to whom his despair looks for relief; his selfishness demands that she love him alone. When he finds out, therefore, that Leanna has taken up with Marla Baker again and has even slept with Phil the cabdriver, and though Leanna points out that sex need not be exclusive for love to be real, English drops her from his quest for redemption.

He ventures after Gerald Twinbrook instead—much less to find him for his parents than to find himself in Twinbrook. Since English is not a sensible person, the facts he discovers about Twinbrook along the way do not deter him. Twinbrook is paranoid; he does not merely list conspirators in high places, he thinks he must do something about them. Also, Twinbrook is a member of the Truth Infantry, a fact English learns from Mr. Vance, a...

(The entire section is 2134 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Elie, Paul. “The Shape of Distant Things.” Commonweal 118 (September 13, 1991): 522-523. Elie sees the novel as a provocative yet odd “work of religious art.” He talks about the paradoxes in the story, the “double-edge of sanctity and insanity.” The focus of the review is Johnson’s skill as a novelist who refuses to distance himself from his characters.

Hull, Lynda, and David Wojahn. “The Kind of Light I’m Seeing: An Interview with Denis Johnson.” Ironwood 13 (Spring, 1985): 31-44. A rare interview with Johnson, who discusses his development as a writer and talks about the religious themes in his poetry and fiction. Although the interview is dated, much of what he says is relevant to his more recent work.

Krist, Gary. “Cape Hell.” The New Republic 204 (June 3, 1991): 41-42. Krist briefly analyzes the themes of Johnson’s previous work, arguing that Johnson’s concern with how the religious impulse “operates in . . . a context of spiritual catastrophe” is a recurrent theme in his work. Krist concludes that the novel “raises large doubts about the possibility of faith in any world like our own.”

Miles, Jack. “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man.” The Atlantic 271 (June, 1993): 121-125. Offers a brief review of Johnson’s novel within the context of the body of his work, including his short stories. Praises Johnson’s book as “his most perfectly realized work.”