The Man and Author
Born in Munich, West Germany, in 1949, Denis Johnson is an acclaimed short story writer, novelist, poet, and playwright. Despite not being born in the U.S., he has been a U.S. citizen since birth. The majority of his childhood was spent in Tokyo, Manila, and ultimately Washington, D.C.
While his father’s work with the U.S. State Department stationed the family in the Philippines, Johnson began experimenting with alcohol. He was only fourteen at the time, but without drinking age regulation he quickly became more than partial to rum. Eventually Johnson’s alcohol use intensified and turned into full blown abuse over the coming years. Despite the dependency he did make his way to college.
He earned his Masters' of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa, which has one of the strongest writing programs in the U.S. During his time spent at Iowa Johnson spent a good deal of time drinking with his alcoholic professor, Raymond Carver, the famous short story writer. During this time at Idaho Johnson was briefly hospitalized for his alcoholism.
Johnson was hospitalized for his alcoholism two more times after graduating, but he was always able to rationalize his behavior with the idea that sobering up would adversely affect his creativity. He turned out to be wrong about this, and in 1983, he published his first novel, Angels, which was also his first work of sobriety. Success followed, and he received the Whiting Writer’s Award in 1986, as well as the. Lannan Fellowship in Fiction in 1993. In 2002 Johnson awarded the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review.
In 2006 Johnson was named theMitte Chair in creative writing at Texas State University during his year as a visiting writer, and in the following year his most renowned novel, Tree of Smoke, was published, won a National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Johnson has two kids, whom he has homeschooled, and he is in his third marriage. He lives in Idaho or Arizona depending on the time of the year, and he still frequents addiction support groups. In an interview with New York Times Magazine, he says, "I was addicted to everything. Now I just drink a lot of coffee."
Johnson, Denis. The Man Among the Seals.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
The Incognito Lounge.
Stars at Noon.
The Veil: Poems.
Jesus' Son: Stories.
“An Anarchist’s Guide to
Already Dead: A
The Name of the World.
Hellhound on My Trail.
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond.
Resuscitation of a Hanged
Soul of a Whore:
Shoppers: Two Plays.
“Train Dreams” (Novella). The
Soul of a Whore: Act II.
Soul of a Whore: Act III.
Tree of Smoke.
Everything Has Been Arranged.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
One of the strong points of Johnson’s writing is that he pulls the reader into that world of addiction. Drugs aren’t romanticized, and altered states don’t represent any sort escape from the real world. Because the story focuses on the addict from the addict’s perspective there is no real interaction with what one might consider an ordinary person. Instead the addict is ordinary, and there is nothing beyond the world of drugs and alcohol. Only at the end does the concept of ordinary really play any part of the story. While attending an addiction meeting a member asks, “did you ever think: Behind those curtains, people are leading normal, happy lives?”(p. 151). The entirety of the episode involves Fuckhead actually visiting a house and spying into the windows trying to absorb what normal life is like. While he started by simply watching the wife come out of the shower, he later found that just watching the people interact was far more gratifying.
Most of the episodes involve the casual deaths random addicts who overdose, or take an accidental bullet in the gut. Fuckhead’s narration leads the reader to understand death as that necessary next step; the inevitable drug-induced demise. Johnson doesn’t treat any death as a serious matter however; he gives it little more than passing mention. At one point Fuckhead is driving his injured friend to the hospital because he is the only one in the group not to have taken too many drugs. The friend dies a few minutes after departing, and Fuckhead simply says, “Throw him out of the car…I’m not taking him anywhere now.”(p. 50).
One of the themes in the novel is question of what an addict is—criminal, sinner, both? Johnson’s use of the ordinary couple that Fuckhead spies on as they interact behind their curtains, brings about the revelation at the end of the story—that ordinary people don’t really exist. What Johnson shows is that addicts live in one type of world, but everyone really lives in a different type of world as well. The couple being spied on have their own issues and eccentricities, and for them life is still a struggle. The difference with addicts is they trick themselves into giving up a greater percentage of their freedom than other types of people. Early in the novel Fuckhead admits what he sees as his metaphorical destiny: “We would die with handcuffs on.” (p. 39).
Besides being a semi-autobiographical parable about the dangers of substance abuse, the novel also provides another more general theme. An amoral participation in life appears to be treated as the most hazardous type of existence, but there is hope as long as there is still life. Fuckhead spends the majority of the novel diminishing spirituality and seemingly divine cues. Ultimately he is lucky enough to recognize that life can be worth living, and at that point he gains a reverence for the intrinsic value in life. At that point he is able to lament the death of his fellows, and reveal his humanity: “I was full of sweet pity for them…sad that they would never live again, drunk with sadness.” (p. 159).