Denis Johnson: Biography, Poetry & Books

Instructor: Megan Thompson

Megan has taught college English and has a master's degree in creative writing.

In Denis Johnson's stories, poems, and plays, darkness is brought out into the light, and we see why he has been called one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. Learn more about Johnson and his works in this lesson.

About Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, in 1949. His father worked for the State Department, and Johnson grew up in many different parts of the world, including the Philippines and Tokyo. At the age of 14, when his father was stationed in Manila, Johnson began his long battle with addiction. It started with rum and eventually escalated to other drugs, including heroin. By the time he was 21, Johnson would enter his first psych ward for alcohol.

Johnson attended the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, studying, writing, and drinking under the short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. Remarking on Johnson's poetry, Carver noted that his poems try to figure out our lives and they work like a close reading of the darker side of the way we live.

Works by Johnson

Johnson's illustrious career has taken him through all genres of writing. Specifically, Johnson has written poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays. Let's look at some of his works.

The Man Among Seals and Angels

He started with poetry, and his book of poetry The Man Among the Seals was published when he was 20 years old, still a student at Iowa. Eventually Johnson realized he had to get sober because he drank through his first marriage, and his writing was failing, amongst other things. So he did and in 1983 he published his first novel, Angels, a severely lovely, lonely, and stunning work.

It was Johnson himself who said that he was a 'criminal hedonist' turned 'citizen of life.' In a recent interview, rare for the rather reclusive writer, Johnson said that he has tackled his multiple addictions and now just drinks coffee.

'Emergency' & Jesus' Son

In Denis Johnson's highly acclaimed short story 'Emergency,' Georgie and his friend are driving in a snowstorm when they realize they are lost. In the distance, they see what appears to be angels descending from the sky, but we quickly learn that Georgie and his friend have actually found themselves at a drive-in movie theatre and their angels are on a screen.

A surprise like this, gentle and tragic, happens often in Johnson's work, yet the reader never gets used to it or knows when to expect such a turn.

The story 'Emergency' appeared in Jesus' Son (1992). Technically a collection of linked short stories, Jesus' Son often feels like a novel due to the same nameless man narrating the entire book. The title of the book comes from The Velvet Underground song 'Heroin.' Though the stories are fictional, Johnson says they are anecdotes based on his misspent youth. The book was later adapted for the screen.

Tree of Smoke

His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The story takes place during the Vietnam War and concerns a character named Skip Sands who works for the C.I.A., similar to Johnson's own father. Johnson continues to play with his favored devices, like religious themes and his peculiar sense of humor. The book is dedicated 'Again for H.P.,' which some argue stands for 'higher power.'

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