The Stars at Noon, 1986
Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, 1991
Already Dead: A California Gothic, 1997
The Name of the World, 2000
Jesus’ Son, 1992
The Man Among the Seals, 1969
Inner Weather, 1976
The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems, 1982
The Veil, 1987
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, 1995
Shoppers: Two Plays, pb. 2002 (includes Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames)
Hit Me, 1998
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond, 2001
Equally adept at fiction and poetry, Denis Johnson chronicles the desperate and surreal lives of people dwelling on the edges of America’s society–criminals and addicts, losers and drifters, prostitutes and con men. Johnson was himself born a drifter. His father, Alfred Johnson, worked for the U.S. Information Agency and moved with his family between diplomatic posts in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. The transient nature of Denis Johnson’s formative years gave him a vision of life’s impermanence that shapes much of his work.
After his family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, Johnson entered the University of Iowa, Iowa City, one of the nation’s leading creative writing schools. There he achieved success early, publishing his first poetry collection at the age of nineteen.
Entitled The Man Among the Seals, this collection reflects Johnson’s fascination for people caught in life’s traps–from astronauts squeezed into a space capsule’s tight confines to an elderly widow seeking lost family memories in a slot machine. It also reveals the enduring influence of rock musicians, notably Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, on Johnson’s writing.
Early success had an unnerving effect on Johnson, however, and it was seven years before he published his next book. During that hiatus he completed a B.A. in English in 1971 and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1974, both from the University of Iowa.
In 1974 he moved to Evanston, Illinois, and taught at Chicago’s Lake Forest College. He quickly discovered that he disliked the academic profession and after one year left his teaching post to drift across Washington state doing odd jobs. During this time Johnson published his second book of poetry, Inner Weather, in which he continued to pursue his interest in down-and-out characters, portraying the darkness and defeat at the heart of urban America.
During 1978 and 1979 Johnson stopped writing while recovering from an addiction to heroin and alcohol. This experience profoundly reshaped his writing. After that his characters still dwell in the realm of despair and failure, but their lives also hold potential for resurrection. Moreover, his post-recovery writings increasingly involve mystical imagery and themes.
From 1979 to 1981 Johnson lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and taught at the medium-security prison in Florence. That experience helped shape his first novel, Angels. In 1981 Johnson was awarded a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and he settled in nearby Wellfleet until 1986. Here he encountered many visual artists, and their techniques began to influence his writing. He also pursued his musical influences with a rock radio show on Provincetown’s WOMR.
Johnson’s third book of poetry, The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems, which is based in part on his recovery from addiction, evokes a hell of alienation and shattered dreams that can only be redeemed through the existential desire to survive one’s past. During this time he also published his first three novels. The first, Angels, centers on a character, Jamie, who links up with a former criminal in a cross-country voyage that ends with Jamie in a mental institution and his traveling companion on death row. Fiskadoro, set in Key West eighty years after an atomic apocalypse, portrays the violent, ritualistic hero’s journey of Fiskadoro, a fourteen-year-old Christ figure. The Stars at Noon chronicles the twisted voyage of an American prostitute and a corrupt British businessman through the sordid maze of war-torn Nicaragua’s criminal underground.
All four of the works written in Massachusetts received wide critical attention and praise. The Incognito Lounge, and Other Poems was selected for the National Poetry Series, and Angels won the Sue Kaufman Award for Fiction.
Johnson next moved to Gualala in Mendocino County, California, where he published his fourth poetry collection, The Veil. In these poems he continues to explore similar themes of desperation as in his previous work, but with the nine sonnets of “Red Darkness” he also introduces a higher level of formalism. He also examines the artistic influences of Sam Messer, Edward Hopper, and James Hampton.
Johnson left northern California in 1989 for Bonner’s Ferry, a small town in northern Idaho. During early 1991 Johnson traveled to Saudi Arabia to cover the Persian Gulf War for Esquire. Soon after he published Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, an excursion into the detective genre that follows the odd exploits of Leonard English, a Provincetown private detective who ends his career in prison.
In 1992 Johnson published Jesus’ Son, a collection of vivid short stories portraying the nightmarish world of the Pacific Northwest’s drug subculture. This collection received wide critical praise. Three years later Johnson published The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, which included his first four books of poetry along with a set of previously uncollected poems. As in his other work, Johnson here continued his surreal exploration of America’s strangely visionary underclasses and subcultures.
Johnson’s next novel, Already Dead, tells the story of Nelson Fairchild, Jr., a thirty-something marijuana farmer with a wealthy background, who is simultaneously being pursued by hitmen hired by a vengeful ex-partner and trying to hire a hit man of his own to murder his wife, who controls their finances. Most critics found the melding of noir plot line with hallucinatory description and New Age philosophizing too murky a mix. The Name of the World involves a professor, Michael Reed, trying to cope with the death of his wife and daughter four years earlier. He becomes involved with a student named Flower Cannon, a cellist, stripper, and performance artist who draws him back toward life. Reviews of both novels criticized the plot lines but praised Johnson’s powers of description and his masterful use of language.
In the late 1990’s Johnson adapted Jesus’ Son for film, also making a cameo appearance in the movie, and wrote the screenplay for the film Hit Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel A Swell-Looking Babe (1991).