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Denis Johnson's Fifth Novel Is A Deconstructionist's Dream

By Stacey Richter

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  DENIS JOHNSON believes fervently in despair. His fifth novel, Already Dead: A California Gothic, establishes him as the high priest of literary losers--sorry self-haters who drift through life wishing to be anywhere but here. For Johnson, misery is the constant drone note of existence, and the characters he assembles in the coastal woods of Northern California are an accursed lot indeed: pot growers, burned-out hippie chicks, coke dealers, hitmen. Even the dogs wind up with names like "Fucker."

From these broken bits of humanity, Johnson assembles his most intense, revelatory novel since Angels, the 1977 debut which brought him critical raves and a slew of maladjusted fans. Since then, Johnson has established himself as a novelist with the large, messy talent of a hard-boiled poet. He's prone to writing desolate tales with snappy dialogue about private detectives, criminals, law enforcement and anyone else functioning at a high level of malfeasance. These good and bad guys waltz around each other, wearing masks of right and wrong which eventually have to be swept aside so that we can get to the real issue that interests Johnson--redemption.

In Johnson's world, grace resides within wretchedness; only those who've fallen down and crawled through mud are likely to look up and glimpse the light. Van Ness, the antihero of Already Dead, is a malignant drifter who's survived a suicide attempt and been resurrected as the Bad-Kirk flipside of his former Good-Kirk self. He is Bushido, as his co-conspirator Nelson Fairchild explains, a Japanese samurai concept that invites the warrior to achieve total detachment by regarding himself as already dead. "I invite the would-be suicide to adopt this concept," quips Fairchild.

And adopt it he does. Freed from the trappings of conventional morality, Van Ness is at liberty to invent his own. As it turns out, his idea of justice is an arbitrary one based on a quick glance at Nietzsche. ("Who reads Nietzsche?" asks Fairchild. "Have you ever tried to spell Nietzsche?") Fairchild, a miserable cad and a pot-grower by trade, asks Van Ness to kill his wife for the simple, film-noir reason that it will make him rich. Only after he's made the request does Fairchild realize he's unleashed demons on his life.

This is where the gothic comes in. In Already Dead, California itself is gothic. Johnson takes the purple, sandalwood aura of New Age and post-hippie culture and bottom-lights it to cast menacing shadows: The sentient redwoods, the wiccan witches, the water sprites of the coastline choking on brush fires--all are exaggerated, grotesque, and very nearly possessed. In this novel, surfer dudes eat their enemies' hearts roasted on a spit while the fog rolls in on a landscape as desolate and watchful as any British moor. Meanwhile, witches cast psychedelic spells on unlucky lawmen and somewhere in the hills, a seven-foot, paranoid man with the monstrous name of Frankheimer lurks.

All this is rich grist for a deconstructionist murder mystery that doesn't really go the places murder mysteries usually go--rather, the plot serves as a kind of framework for the moments Johnson is a master at creating: violent episodes of grief or loss where the trappings of reality fall away; moments of disorientation or pain that open windows to hazed or ecstatic states. Johnson is fascinated with the edges of consciousness where identity begins to disintegrate. He's probably our most skilled living author when it comes to evoking the mental lurches of the insane and people on drugs. An example: "The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out."

He's also a master at wedding the sacred to the profane, constructing sacrosanct moments from everyday events. "The facts are all spiritual facts," Fairchild says; and indeed as the book progresses nearly every action of every character takes on the glowing intensity of a doomed crusade. Deeds as simple as using a urinal get described as "the sound of piss jingling in a great and terrible and enchanted silence."

Considering all the power that accumulates by the end of this novel, the first hundred pages are disappointingly slow. Johnson takes elaborate pains to set up the plot, and sometimes it feels as though one ought to be taking notes on who is doing what to whom. This is especially surprising from a writer whose short stories (collected in the 1992 Jesus' Son) are so fervent and compact. But it's well worth the effort to follow the initial meanderings of Already Dead until the tale gathers the murky luminosity for which Johnson is known.

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