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About The Book

From National Book Award winner Charles Johnson, “the celebrated novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and essayist…comes a small treasure, one to be read and considered and reread” (The New York Times Book Review), showcasing his incredible range and resonant voice.

Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks presents an eclectic, masterful collection of stories tied together by Buddhist themes and displaying all the grace, heart, and insight for which he has long been known. Spanning genres from science fiction to realism, “Johnson’s writing, filled with the sort of long, layered sentences you can get happily lost in, conveys a kindness; a sense that all of us…have our own stories” (The Seattle Times).

In “The Weave,” Ieesha and her boyfriend carry out a heist at the salon from which she has just been fired—coming away with thousands of dollars of merchandise in the form of hair extensions. “Night Hawks,” the titular story, draws on Johnson’s friendship with the late playwright August Wilson to construct a narrative about two writers who meet at night to talk. In “Kamadhatu,” a lonely Japanese abbot has his quiet world upended by a visit from a black American Buddhist whose presence pushes him toward the awakening he has long found elusive. “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” about a cab driver who decides to rob the home of a wealthy passenger, reminds readers to be grateful for what they have. And “The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones” combines the real-life story of a “superhero” in the city of Seattle with an invented narrative about an aging English professor who decides to join him.

With precise, elegant, and moving language, Johnson creates an “arresting” array of “indelible moments that show Johnson to be a master of the short form” (Library Journal, starred review). Night Hawks is “a masterpiece…[that] ultimately offers a message of empowerment and hope” (

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Night Hawks includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In this new collection, his first in many years, master storyteller Charles Johnson interweaves Buddhist themes and ancient Greek philosophy with immediate, striking narratives about moments of transformation and realization. From “Prince of the Ascetics,” in which an ascetic with a difficult master suddenly understands the middle way; to “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” about a robbery that triggers unexpected compassion; to “Welcome to Wedgwood,” following a disgruntled professor who develops a new appreciation for his neighbor, these stories hinge on the capacity of characters to grow and change—in an instant or a lifetime. Night Hawks is a polished, profound gem of a collection, as subtly thrilling with its range and control as it is ultimately inspiring with its message.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In “The Weave,” Ieesha, seemingly regretting the robbery, both calls 911 and sets the stolen hair on fire. Why does she take this second step?

2. At the end of “Prince of the Ascetics,” Mahanama asks his master, who claims to be neither a god nor an angel, “Then what are you?” The master answers, “Awake.” In the context of the story, what do you think this means?

3. “The Cynic” is narrated by Plato, one of Socrates’ students. Contrast his understanding of reality with Diogenes’. What does Diogenes help Plato recognize?

4. Describe Toshiro and Tucker’s relationship in “Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra.” What effect does her visit have on Toshiro’s life?

5. In “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” why does Fowler sacrifice himself for Ida and her child? What do you make of this thoughts about infanticide, and why does he choose a different route?

6. “Idols of the Cave” follows a tense relationship between a Muslim American soldier and his bigoted commanding officer. Can you understand Major Tyler’s actions, at the end of the story? Khan’s?

7. In “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” a young, poor, black cab driver takes it upon himself to “redistribute” some of a wealthy fare’s belongings—until he discovers that his passenger recently faced a terrible tragedy. Yet he decides to take a single diamond bracelet anyway. How does he justify the theft?

8. The professor at the center of “Welcome to Wedgwood” spends much of the story vastly irritated by his new neighbor’s loud music. What changes his attitude?

9. In “Guinea Pig,” one of the most playful stories in the collection, the young narrator is given sudden insight into the workings of a dog’s mind. How does he change? How does he stay the same?

10. The story “4189” takes place in a futuristic world in which death has been eradicated. Why, then, does Shane, the narrator, want to die?

11. In “The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones,” the narrator reflects that “maybe [he] was already wearing a mask” (page 154). Compared to the superhero, the professor presents himself fairly straightforwardly—so what do you think he means by this comment? Are we all wearing “masks” of some kind?

12. The recurring question in “Night Hawks,” based on the friendship between the author and playwright August Wilson, is “How did you happen?” What are the implications of the question? Does the story begin to answer it, either for the narrator or for Wilson?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Look back to one of Charles Johnson’s earlier works, like the National Book Award–winning Middle Passage. Do that book and these stories touch on the same themes?

2. Research the theoretical viewpoints of the philosophers mentioned in “The Cynic”: Plato, Socrates, and Diogenes.

3. Read—or, if possible, watch!—one of the plays in August Wilson’s famed Pittsburgh Cycle. Consider Fences or The Piano Lesson.

About The Author

Lynette Huffman-Johnson

Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. A MacArthur fellow, his fiction includes Night HawksDr. King’s RefrigeratorDreamerFaith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (May 1, 2018)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501184406

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Raves and Reviews

"Johnson, the celebrated novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and essayist, here combines a finely tuned sense of humor with a desire to probe questions that lie at the heart of a reflective existence ... His book is a small treasure, one to be read and considered and reread."
New York Times Book Review

"Johnson’s writing, filled with the sort of long, layered sentences you can get happily lost in, conveys a kindness; a sense that all of us (particularly in “Occupying Arthur Whitfield” and “Welcome to Wedgwood”) have our own stories."
Seattle Times

"Best known for his masterful novels and essays, Johnson wrote this rare story collection over a period of 13 years—resulting in a masterpiece ... Unflinching in his observations, Johnson ultimately offers a message of empowerment and hope."

"A treasure box."

"Charles Johnson deftly weaves the funny with the philosophical."
Lion's Roar

"A modern master’s latest array of glittering tales offers the pleasures and solace of storytelling."
Kirkus, starred

"Arresting .. these are indelible moments that show Johnson to be a master of the short form. Highly recommended."
Library Journal, starred

"These striking stories from National Book Award–winner Johnson (Middle Passage) span a wide range of time periods and cultures but are woven together with a subtle thread of compassion."
Publishers Weekly

"This illuminating collection draws on Johnson's Buddhist faith, African American perspective, and aesthetic sensibilities."

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