Denis Johnson Gets Lost
Reading Denis Johnson’s Seek, a collection of reported pieces that originally ran in publications such as Esquire and The Paris Review, can feel like setting out with a shifty tour guide, one who likes to toss out the map. You get the sense that Johnson-the-journalist, whose day job is novel writing, doesn’t know where he’ll end up morally, psychologically, or geographically in the course of reporting a story. You might even worry about him, especially when his assignments involve driving an automobile. At a Christian motorcycle rally in Texas, he locks his keys in a rental van with the motor still running; while traveling through remote Alaska, he again leaves the keys in the ignition, this time stranding himself with a dead battery; replacing a blown tire on the way to a hippie gathering in Washington state, he gets “confused in [his] head” and forgets to put the nuts back on before driving off. It’s not just cars that give him trouble, but also a desire to see things fall apart. Something makes him want “to see the U.N. off and remain behind as the Last Journalist out of Mogadishu.” When his surroundings aren’t chaotic enough, he’ll sometimes go out of his way to rile them up, ingesting, to give one example, a lot of magic mushrooms on the job.
To put it another way, Johnson is a bit of a mess, and he wants us to know it. There’s something refreshing about a journalist so up-front about his follies and neurotic episodes (even if he does often bring them on himself). Johnson, who lives in northern Idaho and recently taught at the University of Texas, captures his slightly unprofessional behavior with an assured writing style that, despite occasional cute humor or jerky attitudes, is both hilarious and riveting. His restlessness also points to a more serious journalistic technique hinted at in the book’s title, namely the tendency to privilege the search for a story–pratfalls and all–over the destination the story might initially suggest. In an essay that sends him to meet Liberian President Charles Taylor, the resulting interview, which takes up about two of the essay’s 57 pages, is totally overshadowed by Johnson’s chaotic experiences trying to get it. As a reporter, Johnson covers a broad swath of subjects, raking over some of the same ground as he did in his novels Already Dead and The Stars at Noon: religion, drugs, war-torn countries, and people who want, for a variety of reasons, to fly beneath the law-enforcement radar. But whatever his leanings, he’s much more interested in mapping out his responses to chaotic events, real or imagined, than in delivering any straightforward story his editors might have dreamed up beforehand.
The most genial parts of Seek present Johnson wandering through off-the-beaten-path American scenes, recording oddities in a voice that hovers somewhere between enchantment and droll skepticism. In “Distance, Lights, and Dreams,” he plays an apocalyptic Southwest (nuclear tests, disastrous expeditions) off of his visit with The Children of Light, a small group of celibate, self-sufficient Christians who have settled in the Arizona desert. These “children” claim to receive their commandments from “the Voice,” which emanates from the mouth of a member named Opal and instructs them where to go, when to drink water, and how to design their house. “I sensed that nothing I knew applied here,” Johnson writes, but he’s clearly in sync with this not-knowingness. It allows him to slip, in his inimitable way, between quirky journalistic realism (“This Voice,” he asks Opal, “it just comes out of you all of a sudden?”) and more disorienting observations that push the language of first-person experience to peculiar extremes. Of the desert, he says: “In the immenseness of sand that goes on communing with itself in a terrifying way, ignoring everything, answering itself with itself while the sky overhead wears out, the soul feels the same insignificance as the soul of a lost sailor.”
Johnson’s abstract passages hint at a loner’s sensibility, a desire to stray away from concrete details to dwell on personal feelings regarding the matter at hand. If the results seem to surprise even the author himself, that’s because he savors the complexity of being both drawn to and at odds with his topics. In “Hippies,” which takes him to meet an old, long-haired friend at a Rainbow Gathering in Washington state, we find him sneering at the barefooted masses and musing on his failed-hippie past of heroin use and tortured love. The piece veers sharply when he decides to take one last drug trip, which sends him into panicked hallucinations, a self-mocking embrace of the festival, and lonely memories of a dead friend. “Bikers for Jesus” features another turnabout, showing Johnson on a spiritual quest at a revival-style motorcycle rally 40 miles outside Dallas, attended by a lot of people who, like him, have left behind lives of drug use. A mild-mannered Christian, he finds the religious fervor around him “a millstone,” but builds up to a heady conclusion of sermons against racism, group baptisms, and his own growing if tentative belief in the ceremonies. Johnson presents himself as both part of the story and, at the same time, on the outside looking in, tossing out hard-to-pin-down responses and then letting them hang there, suggestively unresolved.
Johnson’s singular and enchanting voice usually holds our attention during his frequent detours, especially in his hand-wringing essays about the notion of a present-day frontier. His conflicted longing for unsettled land is simple enough: “a city boy grown too neurotic to abide urban life,” he also acknowledges that the forest “would quickly extinguish him were he ever to lose his way in it.” He presents this attraction and fear with comic brilliance in the high-anxiety “Down Hard Six Times,” which recounts, among other things, a treacherous single-prop plane ride during his honeymoon in the extreme solitude of Alaska. Once Johnson and his wife (here referred to as Moon One and Moon Two) reach their isolated destination, he fluctuates between a laughable air of cool self-control and losing-it desperation. Afraid they’ll be forgotten in the wilderness, “Moon One likes to stand on the hill… screaming and waving his arms” each time an aircraft flies overhead.
The farcical tone drops out when Johnson explores contemporary frontier politics in the provocatively titled “The Militia in Me.” Johnson’s personal politics are a little hard to pin down. Coming across as a don’t-tread-on-me liberal, he refers to Clinton as “somebody a whole lot like me” but also thinks that the “system meant to keep us free has experienced a failure.” He has little patience for the ideological stances peddled by people like ex-Marine and so-called anti-government politician Bo Gritz (“he looked less like my idea of a warrior than like someone who’d hire himself out to collect delinquent loans”). At the same time, he bemoans the government meddling in his life and, in the name of a free country, shows sympathy for groups typically bothered by the feds, namely “militias, the throwback mountaineers, even the Christian Nazis.”
Johnson asserts everyone’s right to be left alone. Fair enough, but no matter what he does, he can’t entirely boil off the creepiness of arms-bearing extremists, who might or might not leave everyone else alone (he seems to have this in mind in “Run Rudolph Run,” his evocative essay about the FBI search for alleged abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph). At the end of the militia piece, he recalls an encounter with two Alaskan men who stop to help him replace a tire (more car trouble). They chat about liberty, and Johnson’s questions get some pretty scary responses, like “Freedom has to be bought with blood.” The scene bears resemblance to scenes from Johnson’s fiction, in which a situation can turn ominous just before you realize it. Instead of giving a lecture on the danger, he helps us feel it.
Johnson is so good at describing danger that his reports on battle-torn countries might have readers feeling at turns uncomfortable with his recklessness, skeptical of his apocalyptic leanings, and grateful for the adventurous read. In their quieter moments, these pieces present Johnson as a gloomy newscaster covering nothing other than the end of the world, sometimes producing an over-generalized effect. In “Dispatch From World War III,” about the Gulf War, he claims, trembling, “I begin to suspect that this war’s origins reach far back in time, to the recession of the first waters that left this land empty and waiting to be filled with conflagration.” But for the most part, Johnson leavens his doomsaying with concrete details and an ironic edge: a group of gas-masked journalists at the Dhahran International hotel look like “a demented Halloween party to which everyone had come dressed as the same monster, a sort of ant-eyed elephant with an amputated trunk.” In “Hospitality and Revenge,” he wanders from the scaffold where the Taliban executed former Afghanistan President Najibullah to the Kabul zoo’s prize lion, whose face has been demolished by a grenade.
The war stories can turn shrill, with Johnson’s calm assurance suddenly smashing into delirious agitation. In “The Small Boys Unit,” the essay in which Johnson sets out to interview Liberian President Charles Taylor, he arrives in the Ivory Coast (Liberian airports are closed) with hopeful composure, but turns volatile and resentful when faced with border-crossing hitches, brief confinement, air raids, and constant promises that he will soon meet the elusive leader. One wonders: What did you expect? Johnson wonders, too. But again, his tone changes with the vagaries of the search, and his seething gives way to compassion and even tears. In one of the book’s strangest and most moving passages, he risks his life by interfering with a group of young Liberian soldiers as they torture a pleading hostage.
Like most of the essays in Seek, in “The Small Boys Unit,” Johnson shifts relentlessly-from eagerness to ambivalence to anger to despair. His role as the protean reporter might strike some as a little slippery. But whether you enjoy his shape-shifting character or not, it’s enthralling to follow a reporter whose tonal range matches his refusal to stay put. For all his waywardness and fish-out-of-water individualism, he ultimately wants to engage with the world, and this book shows him doing just that. In vivid reports on disorienting sites of warfare, questionable beliefs, and non-mainstream America, he tells us how it feels and where he’s at–even if he’s a little all over the place.
Michael Miller is an editor at The Village Voice.