California Demon

California demon: Denis Johnson's 'Already Dead' explodes genres and other expectations on its way to something rich and really, really strange.

By Gary Kamiya

Published August 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in Denis Johnson's amazing new novel, "Already Dead," the protagonist, Nelson Fairchild, finds himself, in the middle of the night, staring down at what he mistakenly thinks is the corpse of his wife. A brilliant but ludicrously weak and alcoholic 29-year-old dope dealer, he's hired a would-be suicide to kill his wife, only to realize -- too late, as usual -- that he has made a terrible mistake and really loves her.

Denis Johnson is a writer for those of us who -- like Fairchild, if not as doomed -- came undone and never quite came back together, who lost something enormous in the blizzard of years and find ourselves staring into the void under the dinner table. If drugs led you into a strange argument with your life, or you had insights that busted you; if you violated some taboo, or just came into the world like this, obscurely broken, from the beginning ("There is a crack in everything," Leonard Cohen sings, "that's how the light gets in") -- if you are a bell that rings purest when the note of loss is hit, Johnson speaks your language. He writes the anthem for the survivors of extremity.

The instrument of Fairchild's homicidal plans, Carl Van Ness, proves to be not just a serious student of Nietzsche -- whose don't-look-down-you-might-fall-in ideas haunt "Already Dead" -- but literally a demon in human form. That Johnson should have ventured into the shiny, Byzantine-gold world of the supernatural is not entirely surprising. For he has always been drawn to the edge and the ordinary territory beyond that terrifying line, drawn to doubleness and lightning. He's a religious writer, like Melville or Dostoevsky, pursuing with exacting labor a tortured and ecstatic intensity that you might or might not call by the eight gazillion names of God.

Johnson's career has been as unpredictable as any contemporary writer's. His work moves from a visionary tale of lowlife criminals ("Angels") to a fiercely exact imagining of a post-nuclear world ("Fiskadoro"); from a seamy, collapsing meditation on power and corruption ("The Stars at Noon") to a slow-motion portrait of a sad madness ("Resuscitation of a Hanged Man") to a razor-incised series of miniatures of a lost soul trying to climb to purgatory (in the stunning story collection "Jesus' Son"). These books are extraordinarily varied, but they bear the unmistakable stamp of his obsessions: the absence of God, the crumbling, stained concreteness of evil, the possibility of redemption. They also share a certain narrative simplicity. In none of them is plot the most important element -- and none of them mix genres, attempt topical satire or explore the supernatural.

"Already Dead" pursues Johnson's familiar obsessions, but everything else is different. For better and worse, it brings Johnson's monsters, hitherto symbolic, to life. It's about alien beings and multiple universes. Its narrative technique is extremely complicated. It mixes genres and themes like a bartender on 'ludes, jumping from the Eternal Recurrence to knowledgeable disquisitions on the fine art of growing dope. And, just as a bonus, it takes the piss out of the twisted, sublime, vaguely laughable sub-state of Northern California.

With fierce intelligence, Johnson pulls it off -- but at a price. In some ways, the imaginary demons in his other novels were more terrible -- maybe, paradoxically, more real -- than the actual ones here. "Already Dead's" treacherous, murky river of a plot doesn't always allow Johnson room to hit the single high note the way his simpler ones did. But despite its excesses and unbalances, "Already Dead" creates a strange, big world that stays in the mind -- one at once crazy and banal, revelatory and defeated, ridiculous and tragic. It's not as pure or perfectly harmonized a world as those in his other novels, but it shows life from more angles.

Here are a few of those angles:

Carl Van Ness, the aforementioned demon, roams about, engaging in arcane philosophical disputation and wisecracks with Fairchild as, armed with planks and pipes, they try to kill each other on a municipal pier.

A semi-tough, smart, sad cop, the last bedraggled stop on the old P. Marlowe Line, is dosed with hallucinatory toad sweat by a witch named Yvonne with killer thighs -- he ends up seduced by her, or by several of the various disturbing entities who inhabit her.

A couple of hired killers, a horrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duo who bitch at each other like an old married couple, engage in some enigmatic ball-tickling behavior and terrorize a Buddhist monk as he meditates, eventually blow Fairchild's brains out as he sits contentedly writing in his own blood on a park bench. (This isn't a giveaway -- like just about every other event in the book, this is foreshadowed, and looked back on, and passed through numerous other filters long before the end.)

As these scenes indicate, "Already Dead" is an extremely strange book -- one worthy, in fact, to stand on the Weird Shelf next to such wonderful oddities as Melville's "Pierre" and "The Confidence Man," Vitold Gombrowicz's "Ferdydurke," Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities" and Georg Büchner's "Wozzeck." The first exhibit of its strangeness is its plot -- your basic Gothic-noir-philosophical excursus set in Happy Wackyland, aka Mendocino County, Calif. The second is Fairchild himself.

Blown by the stray gusts of his shallow needs, Fairchild feels his childish, hedonistic life twisted around him like barbed wire. Events -- hit men on his trail, "a bad case of push-push fever" for a terminally New Age dumbshit but gorgeous Austrian mistress, a threatened inheritance -- make murdering his wife, Winona, an attractive fantasy. And when Van Ness tries to commit suicide in his lake, Fairchild makes him a peculiar offer: Kill her, then go and kill yourself. A fine plan, except that Van Ness isn't just a demonic emanation of Fairchild's desires who has emerged from some parallel universe -- he's a double-crossing one, too.

That's a seriously weird plot. But even weirder is that Fairchild is so smart, and often sounds so much like what we imagine to be some part of Johnson's authorial voice, that we are compelled against our will to identify with him. Against our will, because he's a pathetic creep who plots the murder of his wife. In one sense, Johnson has simply succeeded, as he characteristically does, in taking us, without judgment, inside the soul of a person who appears to be very different from us but is actually disturbingly similar. And certainly by the time Fairchild begins his great transformation into full humanity -- which starts with the lightning realization that he still loves Winona -- Johnson's apparent half-smiling, ironic fondness for, or at least deep connection with, Fairchild isn't disturbing. What is disturbing is that the earlier, murderous, unenlightened Fairchild doesn't seem that different from the later one -- a fact that leaves a faint taste of either implausibility or dazed amorality floating through "Already Dead."

But even if it's implausible that Fairchild would really have plotted his wife's death -- and you can argue it either way -- plausibility is not altogether necessary here. For this is a novel whose narrative logic dictates that ideas run the show. And they are very strange ideas -- disquieting notions, drawn from an exotic mélange of Nietzsche, multiple-worlds philosophy and New Age spirituality -- that question the underpinnings of "plausibility" itself.

Take Van Ness, the "already dead" man of the book's title. Van Ness is scary precisely because he's so nondescript. Johnson rarely enters his head, and when he does he portrays his mind not as a nest of hissing Nazi-thoughts, but merely as extremely straightforward. (The book's opening line begins "Van Ness felt a gladness and wonder ...") Van Ness plans suicide, or murder, or anything, simply as an act of pure will -- "He's made himself into a knife. Just cuts right on through," says one of the book's numerous demented characters. But perhaps it's just that he doesn't believe that he can actually die, that he'll simply pop up in a parallel universe.

Of this eerie possibility -- that a person might "die in one universe and yet in another go on without a hitch" -- Fairchild thinks, "If this were true, the person who understood it would have conquered death. Would be invulnerable. Would be the Superman. There's a dizzying thrill in a philosophy that can only be tested by suicide -- and then never proven, only tested again by another attempt. And the person embarked on that series of tests, treading that trail of lives as if from boulder to boulder across the river of time -- no, out into the burning ocean of eternity -- what a mutant! Some new genesis, like a pale, poisonous daisy."

"Already Dead" is a polyphonic book -- more like four novels stuffed into one than a single work. This is its weakness, but also its greatest strength, for it allows Johnson both to break free of the literally monstrous aspect of the Gothic genre and to introduce qualifying perspectives -- like that of John Navarro, who serves as a kind of alternate protagonist to the seductive but dubious Fairchild. Navarro is an updated version of the Chandler-Hammett outsider, a decent man bewildered by the vagaries of life in woolly-headed Mendocino County who is granted, in classic noir fashion, a vision of alienation and inexplicable evil that he is powerless to change. One of the most likable and memorable dicks since Philip Marlowe, Navarro is also perhaps the saddest: The scene in which he and his girlfriend half-realize that their relationship is doomed is almost unbearable in its everyday, fated poignancy.

In fact, some of the things that happen around the edges of Johnson's baroque philosophical concerns are among the most memorable in the book. Like his amazing, horrifying portraits of the two hit men, post-Dickensian gargoyles Tarantino could only dream of creating. Or Clarence's on-the-fly affair with a half-hysterical, half-godly single mom, handled with deadpan humor and deep compassion. Or his dead-on rendering of Fairchild's semi-psychotic, semi-inspired brother, who writes letters to Navarro that say things like "I have activated brain power to 85 percent brain capacity and using every inch, every drop so help me GOD in anti-beaming these rays as mentioned, but had to move at 4.14 p.m. to here behind the hill." (It's great stuff, but as a Northern Californian, I protest the demented-character ratio in "Already Dead." Johnson does craziness like nobody else -- but are things really that bad up in sinsemilla country, bro?)

And, always, there is the writing, swooping to catch fateful moments of ordinary loss, rising into extraordinary, enigmatic poetry, like Fairchild's hallucinatory fantasy about Winona in Santa Cruz, before her fateful meeting with Van Ness: "She pulls her parka hood back and floats there like an ark in the deluge of the sun, this California with its fugitives and windmills and artichokes and clouds like thighs. Its vacancies at pink motels. Modesto in the dust. Walnuts shaken down by early quakes. Spanish razors. And here you come with your gypsy blood and your secret suit, feeling like fuck on fire. Straight out of Carmel. They couldn't touch you in Carmel. Not with their skin in shirts like skin. Their fingers in gloves like hands. And these others in Santa Cruz, they can't touch you either."

Does it all cohere? In one sense, it doesn't -- and couldn't. Johnson has written a Gothic that's agnostic about the supernatural, a moral tale with no real moral resolution (the bad guys, who may not really be bad guys but just people who climbed out of a time-warp pothole, get away with it), a philosophical novel whose problematics and precepts are not embodied psychologically. The great novels in which characters embody their philosophy are "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov" -- but Van Ness, the cryptic übermensch, is no tortured Raskolnikov or Ivan, and Fairchild, not actually a killer, stands removed from personal speculation about the meaning of "going beyond good and evil." So there's dissonance within each of the book's three genres -- and then additional dissonance between them.

Agnosticism and multiple perspectives are intellectual virtues, but in a novel they can be mixed blessings. Precisely because its center keeps shifting, moving away, we are forced to detach ourselves emotionally from "Already Dead." With its conundrums and abysses, its wild mix of approaches, "Already Dead" is more like a vast, enigmatic city than a unified work. It is an extraordinary achievement, a funny, scary, cross-eyed monster, but it may be too ambitious, too full of disparate and unbalanced elements, to entirely succeed. It cannot escape its own gloriously dense plot.

To be sure, the mere fact that Johnson is able to keep that plot going, to run four or more intersecting story lines without collisions while going back and forth in time and introducing subtle metaphysical hints, is astonishing. But it's a little like watching a "Twilight Zone" written by William Faulkner -- it may be the greatest "Twilight Zone" ever written, but one is probably enough. It's a noble experiment, but Johnson's poetic powers might find more resistance, bigger scope, less surface obstacles, on a blanker canvas.

Nietzsche, with whom Johnson has not yet finished arguing, once counseled, "Write with blood, and you will realize that blood is spirit." It's a seductive motto, announcing an age when just making up stories is no longer enough -- the artist has to pull his soul out through his skin, has to bleed. But the art of transfusion is dangerous. Most of the prophets of intensity are dead, or crazy, or just broken records playing the same once-wild chord long after it has lost its power to make hair stand up on your neck. Rimbaud, Hendrix, Nietzsche himself -- they were shooting stars, maniac drifters, rock 'n' roll heroes, burnouts. Johnson's candlepower may not flare at such supernova strength -- although it's not a lot dimmer -- but it has endured, changed, grown. In fact, it's hard to say which is the more impressive of his achievements: that he has created such epiphanies and nightmares, or that he has been able to find good stories for them, places where they can walk around, talk, tell jokes, grow old.

To quote Nietzsche again, "Not the intensity but the duration of high thoughts makes high men." Or, to put it in the language of the '60s, what happens after the trip is what matters. In the language of literature, duration translates to invention -- the unglamorous, unrevelatory task of making up stories. The trick is making up the right kind of stories -- ones that can carry revelation, ones you can pray through, bleed into, without draining yourself. Very few writers are able to pray and invent at the same time.

"Already Dead" is not the perfect story to carry Johnson's star-stunned, darkly human vision. The prayers in "Already Dead" compete with the invention, with the idea-heavy story. But the thing works. The prayers, and the blood, are still there, flowing around the big skeletal girders of the plot.

In the end, it is not the ideas that one takes away from "Already Dead," skillfully rendered and thought-provoking as they are. Not multiple worlds or inscrutable symbols, but the thing we all know about, the falling down, the picking up and going on. "Real life now!" sobs out Belinda in "Fiskadoro" when she learns her husband has died. And it is Real Life that Johnson, in the end, delivers -- in Fairchild's final, blood-stained insights, in Clarence's gratuitous, moving love for a woman battered by her life, in the weary but not corrupt future that appears before Navarro. Without a lot of supporting evidence, Johnson refuses to despair, and his tough, compassionate vision illuminates the place where we all make our stand, or where we run, or just wait. Right here. Real Life now.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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