Johnson, Denis 1949–
Johnson, Denis 1949–
Born July 1, 1949, in Munich, West Germany (now Germany).
Writer, journalist. Taught one semester at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, University of Iowa, 1992.
National Poetry Series Award; American Institute of Arts and Letters, Sue Kaufman Award for Fiction, for Angels; Whiting Writers' Award from the Whiting Foundation, 1986, for works demonstrating "exceptionally promising emerging talent"; The Name of the World listed as one of Salon's ten best fiction books of 2000; National Book Award for fiction, 2007, Tree of Smoke; grants from Arizona Arts Commission, Massachusetts Arts Council, John Guggenheim Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts.
The Man among the Seals, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1969.
Inner Weather, Graywolf (Port Townsend, WA), 1976.
The Veil, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New, Harper (New York, NY), 1995.
Angels, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Fiskadoro, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
The Stars at Noon, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
Already Dead: A California Gothic, Harper (New York, NY), 1997.
The Name of the World, Harper (New York, NY), 2000.
Tree of Smoke, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2007.
(Author of text) Mark Klett, Traces of Eden: Travels in the Desert Southwest (photography), Beaverbooks, 1986.
Jesus' Son (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
Hellhound on My Trail (play; also see below), produced in San Francisco, CA, 2000.
The Name of the World: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond, Harper (New York, NY), 2001.
Shoppers: Two Plays (contains Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames), Harper (New York, NY), 2002, produced at the Dimson Theater, New York, 2002.
Jesus' Son was adapted into a film by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman, directed by Alison Maclean, and released by Lions Gate in 1999.
Denis Johnson's poems and novels provide candid, slice-of-life perspectives on offbeat subjects. In his first verse collection, The Man among the Seals, he includes poems about a man imagining an auto mishap and one speculating about the lives of two mice trapped in mousetraps. These and other poems in the volume were prized for their lively structure—rolling rhythms and sometimes jarring line breaks—as well as for their somewhat odd points of view. A critic in Virginia Quarterly Review called The Man among the Seals "an astonishing first book" and praised the poems as "dramatically satisfying and whole." The reviewer also marveled at Johnson's accomplished writing—he was only twenty when the book appeared—and declared that the poems seemed those "of a mature writer in mid-career."
In his second collection, Inner Weather, "Johnson forgoes some of his stylistic experimentation," related Joe Nordgren in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Because of this, "his poetic structure more consistently complements his poems' sense and themes," Nordgren added. Most of the fifteen poems in this collection are about ordinary people in despair. "While dramatizing daily events and searching for ways to allow his subjects to project themselves, he accounts for the less than perfect, the less than dazzling aspects of life that people gloss over so as to avoid blame or guilt," Nordgren observed.
Johnson next published The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems, which strengthened his reputation as a chronicler of the unusual aspects of American culture. His characters are sad, lonely, often on the margins of society, denizens of seedy bars and greasy-spoon diners. The title poem, according to Nordgren, is "a frightening—at times surreal—descent into the refuse of fallen lives." Yet Johnson does not look down on these characters, and he recognizes that they are capable of redemption, Nordgren added. Alan Williamson, critiquing the collection in the New York Times Book Review, declared that Johnson is "good at American voices" and added that he convincingly "suffers over the anomie he describes." A contributor for Antioch Review was even more impressed, calling The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems "a welcome antidote to any number of literary and spiritual malaises." The critic cited "the scalding wit of the poems" and contended that The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems was among "the most appealing and exciting books" of 1982.
Johnson's body of poetic work, including later collections The Veil and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New, shows his poems to be "distinguished by its stylistic vitality and emotional honesty, indicating his intense engagement with language and experience," in Nordgren's opinion. "Forgiveness and surviving memories and mistakes of the past are his dominant themes, since it is impossible to live, in his words, as a ‘fallen person.’"
Johnson followed The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems with his first novel, Angels, which tells of two desperate characters—Jamie and Bill—and their descent into crime. Jamie and Bill meet on a bus leaving Oakland, California, where Jamie had just left 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 travels there too, to find Bill, but she is raped during her search. After the lovers rejoin, they travel to Phoenix, Bill's hometown. There Jamie succumbs to drug addiction and Bill resumes his criminal activities.
Angels earned critical praise for Johnson's evocation of American life's grimmer aspects. Newsweek contributor Peter S. Prescott called Johnson "an accurate and unsentimental observer of people and events" and commended his skill at making readers "know his characters rather better than we might want—to the point of forgiveness." Prescott called Angels "a beautiful book." Speer Morgan, writing in Saturday Review, also cited Johnson's ability to elicit readers' "empathy with [the novel's] characters." Morgan deemed Angels "a fine first novel."
In his second novel, Fiskadoro, Johnson writes of life after a nuclear holocaust. Set in the near future, Fiskadoro presents a world of mutants, primitive fisherman, and traders. Among these survivors are Grandmother Wright, a one-hundred-year-old woman—half Chinese—who has lost her ability to speak; A.T. Cheung, a ragtime clarinetist who is preoccupied with history; and Fiskadoro, Cheung's protégé, who lacks memory and thus seems the most likely candidate to contend with the future.
Some critics were exuberant in recommending Fiskadoro as a compelling tale of survival and acceptance. Newsweek reviewer Prescott, who called Fiskadoro "a remarkable novel," wrote that its "principal theme concerns the problems of learning what has been lost and the role memory plays in survival." Similarly, Bruce Van Wyngarden wrote in Saturday Review that Fiskadoro presents "a world where knowledge is a shattered mirror and no one has more than a couple of pieces." Van Wyngarden deemed Johnson's second novel "a world of bewitching power." Stephen Dobyns, in the Washington Post Book World, described Fiskadoro as "beautifully written and constantly entertaining" and called Johnson "a wonderful story-teller."
Johnson's next novel, The Stars at Noon, failed to elicit the praise accorded his previous books, however. Set in 1984 in Managua, Nicaragua, the story revolves around the activities of its self-destructive narrator—a "North American female prostitute-drifter with a press card, which has been revoked"—and her lover, referred to only as "the Englishman," who is on the run after passing Costa Rican industrial secrets to the Sandinistas.
"Johnson apparently means for this novel to address a modern condition marked by cynicism and despair," wrote John Gabree in the Washington Post. The critic added that the "narrator is so bent on her own corruption it is impossible to tell where the boundaries of good and evil lie, or whether there is any good at all…. All that is being played out in these pages are the final twitches of a dying soul." Michiko Kakutani declared in the New York Times that The Stars at Noon successfully "conjures up a hellish vision of Managua and the outlying country through dozens of details and heatglazed images," but found that "we never really care whether or not [the protagonist] betrays her lover, and we certainly never care what eventually happens to her. Mr. Johnson's shimmering descriptions of Central America provide us with moments of relief, but in the end, his narrator's tiresome voice drags the novel down, submerging the magic of his prose."
Critics have noted a variety of influences on Johnson's work, particularly his fiction—one critic compared Fiskadoro to both Samuel Beckett's work and reggae music. In the New York Times Book Review, Johnson acknowledged an eccentric assortment of influences ranging from the writings of Robert Stone and Flannery O'Connor to the songs of Bob Dylan and the music of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson added: "Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest … have something to say in every line I write."
Jesus' Son, Johnson's first collection of short fiction, consists of eleven brief, interconnected stories narrated by an unnamed young man who is addicted to drugs and alcohol. The book's title comes from Lou Reed's song "Heroin" ("When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' son"), and addiction of one sort or another figures prominently in each of the stories. Indeed, drugs and alcohol are virtually the only constants in the narrator's life; the settings of the stories vary (rural Iowa, Seattle, Phoenix), as do the man's friends, and the reader learns nothing about his past. He reveals himself exclusively through his words and his various incarnations: a hitchhiker, a barfly, the owner of a sixty-dollar car with no brakes. Those around him are an assortment of lowlifes and losers, inhabitants of a bleak and often violent American demimonde. The most striking feature of these stories, however, is the incantatory, almost dreamlike, quality of the narrator's voice. Although almost every story recounts some gruesome or sensational incident—a horrific car accident, a bizarre emergency room case, a pointless shooting—the narrator's voice remains eerily matter-of-fact throughout.
Jesus' Son received numerous positive reviews. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani lauded Johnson's "dazzling gift for poetic language, his natural instinct for metaphor and wordplay." Nation reviewer Marianne Wiggins found that "reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious." And Todd Grimson, a Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor, noted, "Denis Johnson writes as though he inhabits a waking dream." Jack Miles concluded a long Atlantic Monthly review of the collection with these words: "Denis Johnson's path as a writer … 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." Interestingly, Johnson, himself a recovered drug and alcohol addict, was at first reluctant to publish the collection, even though most of the stories had already appeared in various periodicals. He considered the work too autobiographical, too personal. As he remarked to a Washington Post interviewer in 1993: "The reason I wasn't publishing them is I didn't want people to say, ‘Oh, look at this guy!’ But I don't think we really have the right to make decisions like that. Authors should think of themselves as dead."
The response of some critics to Johnson's next novel, Already Dead: A California Gothic, was not nearly as positive. The book seemed to perplex, even to annoy, several reviewers. Set in rural northern California, this complex, labyrinthine "gothic" (which features trolls, spirits, and all manner of New Age devotees) centers on Nelson Fairchild, Jr., an alcoholic marijuana farmer who stands to inherit a substantial fortune. Nelson has a great many 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 this estranged wife, hoping thereby to sustain his son's marriage. Nelson, however, has other plans, and sets out to find someone to kill his wife. In Carl Van Ness, he finds the perfect candidate, for Van Ness, a violent criminal bent on self-destruction, is, for all intents and purposes, "already dead."
But the plot of Already Dead defies easy summarization or encapsulation. David Gates, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found the plot engulfed in "murk," but noted: "That's not a knock, necessarily. Johnson is a wonderful writer, and murk is one of the things he does best—even if it sometimes swamps the proceedings entirely." Gates, who considered the entire novel "a little over the top," went on to observe, "Johnson's characters, even the nonviolent ones, are so convincingly scary it's uncomfortable to be in their company." In a New York magazine review of the novel, Luc Sante wrote: "The narrative does not describe an arc so much as some kind of fractal meander." After wondering whether Johnson realized "how unbearable his protagonist is," or whether the book merely suffered from "a case of absent editor," Sante remained perplexed: "Because Johnson is such a splendid writer, and so tricky and idiosyncratic and non-Euclidian, … there may be something else afoot. Maybe it's all a test."
The short novel The Name of the World focuses on a university professor's efforts to get on with his life following the deaths 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; then an unconventional young woman—a cellist and a stripper who nevertheless reminds Reed of his lost loved ones—comes along to shake him up. An Economist reviewer noted that the plot "would seem slight, unless it happened to you" and dubbed the book "a triumph of tone," filled with offbeat observations. New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Stone thought that sometimes the novel's "transitions are rocky, and the view can be dim. At other times, Johnson's unique lyricism lights up his book's interior world." Stone found the character of the cellist-stripper, Flower Cannon, "improbably believable, one of the book's finer creations," but Richard Eder, writing in the New York Times, deemed Reed's relationship with her "arbitrary and gestural, a necromancy that is incantation and very little magic." Eder contended that even though parts of the book were strong, Johnson's writing eventually turned into "poetic curdle." Newsweek critic David Gates, however, considered The Name of the World "a haunting novella," while a Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that it "manages to be both lyrical and raw." The Economist reviewer concluded: "Deft, moving, and wonderfully odd, this is a slim novel in physical size only."
In Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond, Johnson collects eleven essays written over a twenty-year period. They explore a diverse cross-section of people all searching for something to believe in and for a life that stands apart from the values of mainstream America. The people he writes about include Christian bikers, hippies, and right-wing militiamen. Although always present in his anecdotes, Johnson refers to himself only in the third person or as a separate character, a technique that creates "an askew, out-of-body point of view," in the opinion of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. While this strains his credibility as a reporter, it "adds sincerity to his plight as a human," noted the writer, who concluded that Seek is "intriguing and insightful."
Johnson's Tree of Smoke was published in 2007 and went on to win a number of honors, including that year's National Book Award. The book is one that he had been working on for the better part of fifteen years in some version or another, with little bits and pieces developing along the way as he moved back and forth between other projects, both poetry and prose. It is an American story that follows the lives of two young men enlisted in the armed forces, and two operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency, beginning in the turbulent 1960s and continuing on for the next two decades. The book actually opens with none of these four individuals, but with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and with the shooting of a monkey in the Philippines at the hands of an American GI by the name of Bill Houston. From there Johnson swiftly moves on, introducing Bill's seventeen-year-old brother James, who forged a birth certificate to enlist in the army early, and Skip Sands, who is in his third year working as an operative for the CIA. Skip's primary ambition is to wipe communism off the face of the planet. His uncle is a colonel and also in the CIA, and rounds out the quartet. The book traces these men through their very different war experiences as well as their ever-changing views of the political landscape. The four men face brutality and the side effects of war, witnessing atrocities that include rape, the death of civilians, and an odd duality that makes it difficult to understand right from wrong when situations are viewed through enemy eyes. With so many books having already been written on the Vietnam War, both fiction and nonfiction, it is difficult to get a position on Tree of Smoke as a truly original work; it owes to much debt to the writing of the likes of Graeme Greene and Lederer and Burdick. Ultimately, however, the powerful imagery and brisk pacing despite the book's length make it stand out as an important commentary on war and the ways in which decisions are made. Jim Lewis, reviewing for New York Times Book Review, enthused regarding Johnson's effort, calling it "a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop." Ben Segedin, in a review for Booklist, remarked of Johnson that "with this worthy addition to Vietnam literature, he confidently joins the ranks of Tim O'Brien, Larry Heinemann, and Michael Herr." Michael Coffey, writing for Publishers Weekly, commented that "when the book ends, … you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 52, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Antioch Review, spring, 1983, review of The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 1993, Jack Miles, review of Jesus' Son, pp. 121-127.
Booklist, August 1, 2007, Ben Segedin, review of Tree of Smoke, p. 8.
Boston Review, October-November, 1993, review of Jesus' Son, pp. 30-31; February-March, 1996, pp. 31-33.
Commonweal, August 13, 1993, review of Jesus' Son, p. 23.
Economist (US), July 15, 2000, "Six New Novels," p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, August 15, 1997, review of Already Dead: A California Gothic, p. 68; May 11, 2001, review of Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond, p. 74.
Georgia Review, winter, 1982, Peter Stitt, "A Remarkable Diversity," pp. 911-922.
Harper's, August, 1999, Vince Passaro, review of Jesus' Son, p. 80.
Library Journal, September 1, 2000, Marc Kloszewski, review of The Name of the World, p. 249.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, Todd Grimson, review of Jesus' Son, p. 3.
Nation, February 15, 1993, Marianne Wiggins, review of Jesus' Son, pp. 208-209; June 25, 2001, David L. Ulin, review of Seek, p. 25.
Newsweek, September 19, 1983, Peter S. Prescott, review of Angels; July 8, 1985, Peter S. Prescott, review of Fiskadoro; July 31, 2000, David Gates, "What's in a Name? Denis Johnson's Topsy-turvy Novella Pulls with G-Force," p. 64.
New York, August 4, 1997, Luc Sante, review of Already Dead, pp. 57-58.
New York Times, October 31, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Stars at Noon; December 11, 1992, Michiko Kakutani, review of Jesus' Son, p. C31; July 14, 2000, Richard Eder, "The Ever-widening Circles of Grief."
New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1982, Alan Williamson, review of The Incognito Lounge: Other Poems; August 31, 1997, David Gates, review of Already Dead, p. 5; July 9, 2000, Robert Stone, "In Transit"; September 2, 2007, Jim Lewis, "The Revelator."
Publishers Weekly, May 15, 2000, review of The Name of the World, p. 86; May 7, 2001, review of Seek, p. 235; June 25, 2007, Michael Coffey, review of Tree of Smoke, p. 30.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2001, Irving Malin, review of The Name of the World, p. 201.
Saturday Review, October, 1983, Speer Morgan, review of Angels; May-June, 1985, Bruce Van Wyngarden, review of Fiskadoro.
Time, August 11, 1997, review of Already Dead, p. 77.
Variety, September 4, 2000, Dennis Harvey, review of Hellhound on My Trail, p. 32.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1971, review of The Man among the Seals.Washington Post, November 1, 1986, John Gabree, review of The Stars at Noon; February 3, 1993, interview with Denis Johnson, p. C1.
Washington Post Book World, June 30, 1985, Stephen Dobyns, review of Fiskadoro.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (June 25, 2001), "Denis Johnson's ‘Hippies’"; Laura Miller, review of The Name of the World.