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Johnson's latest is composed of a series of linked narratives set along the northern California coast in 1991, and centered in the psychic unraveling of Nelson Fairchild, a 30ish rich boy marijuana-grower who has unwisely cheated a murderous colleague, and spends his generally stoned, panicked days simultaneously fleeing the hit men who pursue him and arranging his own hit on his wife (who controls their finances, and in any case has been supplanted in Nelson's lustful affections by his mistress Melissa). Johnson surrounds Nelson's ordeal with a garish jumble of variously related outlaws and misfits, including Carl Van Ness, a philosophical drifter who vacillates between the consolations promised by suicide (Johnson's title denotes Van Ness's passive mind-set) and the intriguing prospect of becoming Nelson's hired gun; Wilhelm Frankheimer, a gigantic acidhead merchant marine turned blacksmith; Nelson's gently delirious brother William, who lives in the woods and writes deranged letters filled with cosmic paranoia to the police; a cop named Navarro who's drawn into their increasingly bizarre dance of death; and several alternately lissome and lethal women who, when not fulfilling their men's erotic fantasies, are blithely double-crossing them. There's also an effective Grand Guignol appearance by Nelson Fairchild père, the kind of venomous old man whom John Huston always played in movies. The book does move right along, despite its bulk, and the writing is frequently charged with energy and wit. But it contains a little too much of everything: fashionable despair (though Nelson's imagined "demon" has a gritty surrealism), New Age meandering, and fitful little explosions of overcalculated violence.
A novel this one resembles, Charlie Smith's The Lives of the Dead, did it better. Johnson's attempt at a noir epic intermittently excites and teases, but doesn't satisfy.
Van Ness felt a gladness and wonder as he drove past the small isolatedtowns along U.S. 101 in Northern California, a certain interest, a yearning,because he sensed they were places a person could disappear into. They feltlike little naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire andhike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life,the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortalfriend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church. Butsuch a thing as a small detour into deep and permanent changes, at the time,anyway, that he was travelling down the coast from Seattle into MendocinoCounty, wasn't even to be dreamt of in Van Ness's world.
The side trip he took off 101 into Humboldt County only proved it. He desertedhis route at Redway, went five miles west to Briceland and from there ahalf dozen miles to the Mattole River and past an invisible town (he sawonly a one-room school in the corner of a field) called Ettersburg, andthen switched back and forth along mountainous terrain another few milesto a dirt road that cut through the King Range National Forest.
Bucking slowly in his Volvo down the steep zigzag track among dusty redwoods,Van Ness glimpsed the sky above the sea but not the sea. He stopped fortwo minutes at an elbow of the road overlooking the decline and ate a packof cheese-flavored crackers and whisked the crumbs from his long mustache—handlebarsarcing down into a monstrous Fu Manchu and serving, along with thick rimlessspectacles, almost to obliterate any personality from his face. Thecrackerswere the last of his food. He tossed the wrapper onto the floorboard anddrove on.
Vaguely he wanted to accomplish some small cleansing of himself in thisremote area known as "The Lost Coast," wanted to fast beside thePacific and lie on his back all night within hearing of the ocean's detonationsand look up at a meteor storm: between ten and thirty-five stars were expectedto fall every minute that night, according to the weather report on hisradio.
But when he reached the shores of the Pacific, he realized he'd only managedto find the back way into a place called Shelter Cove, a vast failed housingdevelopment on the isolated coast, hundreds of tiny empty lots set amongasphalt streets with green signs on poles—Clam Avenue, Beach Drive, andso on—shaken and speckled by the sandy wind. Half a dozen actual homesfronted the beach, and a few overturned runabouts, and a delicatessen, butreally almost nobody had ever lived here. The sea burned in its heartlessblueness while overhead flew helicopters filled, according to news flasheson his radio, with National Guardsmen and agents of the federal governmentconducting a massive raid on the marijuana patches in the unpeopled hillshe'd just driven through. Van Ness bought his lunch in the deli and complainedsilently to himself about the weak coffee and the gull droppings on thepicnic table. The only person he talked to was a pretty woman who sworeat him because, as he walked past her table to the trash can, she droppedher sunglasses, and he stepped on them. The glasses were unsalvageable.He gave her fifteen dollars, although she claimed they'd cost twice that.Van Ness was back on the main highway again just a few hours after leavingit. He'd circled back to the town of Redway, the point where he'd turnedoff. The whole pointless excursion had a way of sealing his mind even furtheragainst any notion that great changes might beset him unexpectedly. Andyet later he encountered the woman, Winona Fairchild, again, more than once;and eventually these encounters forced him to acknowledge the reality offate, and the truth inherent in things of the imagination.
A California Highway Patrolman pulled him over on a stretch of 101 he hadto travel before he would reach Leggett and turn west again toward the coast.Van Ness knew he'd been speeding; he did it habitually, compulsively. Hecarried a passenger at the time, a teenaged girl dressed after the styleof Lithuanian peasants, in a long skirt, bright scarf, and sharply pointedpurple shoes, her name a poetic creation possibly designating a flavor ora scent, like Rainbow Day or Temple Jasmine, but it had escaped his memoryeven as she'd said it. Except for the introductions, she and Van Ness hadn'ttraded ten words since he'd picked her up hitchhiking by the Texaco in Redway,at which time he'd said to her, "Welcome, Fantasy Lady."
Now he wished he hadn't said it. When the young patrolman stooped down besidethe driver's window to peer within and ask for the license, the hippie girlleaned toward him over Van Ness's lap: "Is it about another ten milesto Leggett?"
"Yes, ma'am, little over eight miles," the patrolman said.
"He's really scaring me," she revealed suddenly.
"Who?" the patrolman said.
"This man," she said. "He made remarks. He touched my thigh."
"When?" asked Van Ness. "When I was reaching to the radio?That was an accident."
The policeman concentrated intensely, irrelevantly, on Van Ness's license."Are you friends, you two people?"
Van Ness said, "No," and the girl said, "I was hitching."
"Go stand beside my car," the patrolman told the young woman.
Van Ness turned off the ignition. "I feel sick about this," hetold the officer as they watched the girl walk, slightly pigeon-toed, towardthe spinning lights of the squad car in her purple shoes. "I reallyfeel confused. I didn't do a thing. Look, I know I'm no Casanova."
"Were you watching your rate of speed?"
"Yes, yes—I mean," Van Ness agreed, "I was definitely speeding,yes, sure. But this? No."
A California Gothic. Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted March 27, 2000
Some fiction tries to find the universals of what we know, find a path through which to say 'we are none of us alone' and touch the heart. Other fiction seeks out and walks along the edge of the collective human experience. This book falls in that second category. In this book, Johnson is clearly trying to apprehend and distill a particular human (or not so human) understanding of what is real and what is deadly. I'm not sure he succeeds, but the clarity of his wordsmithing and and the poignancy of his characters is achingly evocative to me. Stanislavsky (major theater teacher) used to talk about 'dead theater,' the form of theater in which form overrules communication and kills the heart. From this book, I'd say Johnson thinks there is such a thing as 'dead life' as well, a way of living that is so preoccupied with getting through the day and its challenges that whatever is real and vital about life has no chance of being lived. Johnson describes this by creating characters who live passionless extremes by rote, characters who ache for that vitality but are too afraid to go look for it, and characters who have died and been replaced in their living by some animus of animosity. Parts of the book are chilling in describing these forms of dead. A few other parts are just as successful in describing the sacred, the joyous, the touchingly beautiful. And his characters are complex and well-developed, many of them with a language and a voice all their own. While the wording is well-crafted, the characters multilayered and the thematic content sufficiently transparent without being overbearing, the plot wanders and dodges. Because of this the book fails, in the end, to cohere.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 28, 2010
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Posted December 7, 2009
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Posted December 18, 2008
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