A German-born American poet and author, he is best known for his short story collection, Jesus' Son (1992), and for his novel, Tree of Smoke (2007). He was the 2007 recipient of the National Book Award, and he was also a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
He published his first poetry collection, The Man Among Seals, when he was just nineteen years old. He later attended the University of Iowa, where he studied poetry and fiction writing.
He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction in 1993.
Born in West Germany, he grew up in Japan, the Philippines, and the United States. He was married three times and had three children; his third marriage was to Cindy Lee.
His short story collection, Jesus' Son, was adapted into a film starring Billy Crudup.