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Denis Johnson Biography

novel york fiskadoro memory

Nationality: American. Born: Munich, Germany, in 1949. Awards: American Academy Kaufman prize, 1984; Whiting Foundation award, 1986; literature award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Angels. New York, Knopf, 1983; London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.

Fiskadoro. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

The Stars at Noon. New York, Knopf, 1986; London, Faber, 1987.

Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. New York, Farrar Straus, 1991.

Already Dead: A California Gothic. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.

The Name of the World. New York, HarperCollins, 2000.

Short Stories

Jesus' Son. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1992.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Taking of Our Own Lives," in Three Stances of Modern Fiction, edited by Stephen Minot and Robley Wilson, Jr. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Winthrop, 1972.

"There Comes after Here," in Atlantic (Boston), April 1972.

"Tattoos and Music," in North American Review (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Spring 1977.

"Two Men," in New Yorker, 19 September 1988.

"Work," in New Yorker, 14 November 1988.

"The Bullet's Flight," in Esquire (New York), March 1989.

"Car-Crash While Hitchhiking," in Paris Review, Spring 1989.

"Dirty Wedding," in New Yorker, 5 November 1990.

Poetry

The Man among the Seals. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1969.

Inner Weather. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1976.

The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems. New York, Random House, 1982.

The Veil. New York, Knopf, 1987.

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems, Collected and New. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.

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Film Adaptations:

Jesus' Son, 1999.

* * *

Denis Johnson's first two novels, Angels and Fiskadoro, delineate the lives of outcasts on the fringes of their societies. The first is a contemporary urban novel whose characters drift into tragedy and moral and physical decline; still, it is a novel of hope. In the second, though the landscape is bleaker, an even deeper, more elemental hope for human survival is posited. Johnson brings his considerable gifts as a poet to help explore the possibilities of persistence and redemption in two separate worlds, one in decline, the other struggling to be born.

The surface of Angels is sensational, melodramatic, and even savage at times. Occasionally the characters are presented as cartoon-like as Johnson depicts the contemporary world in ways that bring this work close to the absurdist novel; however, Angels is finally a novel more in the realistic mode, and the self-conscious gothicism is meant as a comment on the irrationalism and hysteria that have become commonplace in descriptions of contemporary urban life in the United States.

The two lower-class characters, Jamie Mays and Bill Houston, an ex-sailor and ex-convict, are losers who travel across America in a state of radical drift. What we see is a society spiritually blighted by vacuous radio, movies, and TV, and superstitious cults that function as ersatz religions; all these derive from the human need for moral purpose and personal transcendence that have everywhere been lost and which only serve to disguise the destructive forces that lay just beneath the surface, often represented in images of self-immolation: "Scarlet light and white heat awoke her. She was in flames…. It was not her clothing, but her flesh itself that was burning." The setting of this hallucination is a mental ward where Jamie is taken after a psychotic break precipitated by a rape that is motivated by an almost indifferent sadism, itself the amoral outcome of a society spiritually lost, one in which self-identity is always at risk: "For a second standing in line behind a half dozen people, she felt as if no one part of herself was connected to any other." Bill Houston becomes involved in a bank robbery during which he kills a bank guard, but given the circumstances of his life, it is difficult to determine moral culpability. Mainly for political reasons, he is sentenced to die in the gas chamber, but the angel of light finally prevails and Bill's life is at the end given moral dimension in his epiphany at the moment of death: "He got it right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn't going to come. That's it. That's the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being." This is the angel of light, corresponding to Jamie's return to sanity and wholeness, and is the hope that infuses the end of the novel. However, no such hope is held out for a social healing.

Fiskadoro, Johnson's second novel, set in the Florida Keys two generations after the nuclear holocaust, is also a novel about survival, this time removed from an urban environment and put in the larger social context of the entirety of human society.

The question posed at the center of the novel is "What must be done to ensure the rebirth of civilization?" Several alternate societies coexist, and it is their clash and intermingling that provide the answer. Mr. Cheung represents the old pre-nuclear society built on art and rationalism; members of his group meet to try and reconstruct the Western (and to some extent, the Eastern) tradition from the bits and pieces of it that have survived: various artifacts, a book on nuclear war, a clarinet, spent radiation-sensitive buttons that declare the wearers believers in reason and science. The anti-culture, represented by Fiskadoro, a young teen, clashes with the defunct culture when Fiskadoro comes to Mr. Cheung (who is manager of the bedraggled Miami Symphony Orchestra) for clarinet lessons, as if asking Cheung to integrate him into the old cultural tradition. However, Fiskadoro has no talent for music and fails to master the instrument until at the end of the novel when he is transformed.

Fiskadoro becomes the leader of the new order, but only after he spends days among the jungle savages who destroy his memory through drugs and primitive ritual, which includes self-inflicted circumcision. This memory loss fits Fiskadoro as the harbinger, and perhaps founder, of the new world struggling to be born because, Johnson says, memory is the faculty through which history lives and culture is transmitted; memory severed makes rebirth possible. After the cleansing, the historical cycle will again be put in motion: "Everything we have, all we are, will meet its end, will be overcome, taken up, washed away. But everything came to an end before. Now it will happen again. Many times. Again and again." Alternating action at the end of the novel juxtaposes Fiskadoro's rebirth with that of Cheung's grandmother, a ship-wrecked Vietnamese refugee who is the offspring of a Western father and Asian mother. She spends twenty hours in the sea awaiting rescue: "The shock of finding herself here where she'd always been was like a birth." She has obvious parallels with Fiskadoro: "… saved not because she hadn't given up, because she had, and in fact she possessed no memory of the second night.…" Thus Johnson integrates within this complex poetic novel the themes of social and individual regeneration. The novel at times strains to keep these and other elements in balance, but manages to do so often enough to make this ambitious work succeed.

With Already Dead, Johnson uses biting humor in a tale that is—on the surface at least—as light as Fiskadoro's is ponderous. Though a marijuana farmer, protagonist Nelson Fairchild, Jr., is a highly sympathetic figure, and when he gets himself between a rock and a hard place, the reader is compelled to care. In the midst of this, he saves the enigmatic Carl Van Ness from a suicide attempt, and the two hatch a scheme to rescue Fairchild's fortunes. As the book progresses, however, Nelson begins to wonder if Carl is not really his worst problem. Particularly compelling is Johnson's portrayal of the northern California setting: "hills above them massed with redwoods and the waves beating themselves to pieces in the mist below."

—Peter Desy

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