DEN IS JOHNSON 10:1\\-’11;TS 1,RO.,.-111-11:_ 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 tion, 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 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 piece, he recalls an encounter with two Alaskan men who stop to help him 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 airsure, 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 relentlesslyfrom 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 fishout-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 ateven if he’s a little all over the place. Michael Miller is an editor at The Village Voice. 6/22/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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