Already Dead, by Denis Johnson
Already Dead: A California Gothic.|
448 pages, $13 (paperback).
Nelson Fairchild, Junior, is miserable. He's in the midst of a divorce that will cost him millions, and it's the divorce that's led to his disinheritance by his father. Nelson's only brother has retreated to the old growth redwood forests at the edge of his family's property, and is lost in a schizoid haze. His father, an amoral millionaire, is dying and refuses to leave his own bed. All of which is to say that things are not going well for Nelson Fairchild, Junior.
In Denis Johnson's Already Dead, we have a book that is one of the most impressive American novels in recent years. Johnson's first work of fiction since his acclaimed story collection Jesus' Son, comes on the heels of the release of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly, an edition of new and collected poems. And throughout Already Dead, we see the echoes of Johnson's highly poetic language.
Johnson, through his mastery of the word, creates not only the form of the novel, but renders a wholly complete, if bizarre, world. He manages to lead the reader into the rapture of the Northern California coast, a land of menacing fog, weeklong rains, a region populated with characters bent on mischief. Most of Johnson's fiction has dissected a peculiar region or town as a synecdochic way to understand contemporary American culture: Fiskadoro looked at a post-nuclear Florida, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man looked at the offbeat, off-season residents of Provincetown, while the linked stories in 1992's Jesus' Son floated in and around Seattle.
In short, Johnson the novelist is also Johnson the social critic. And much of the interwoven narratives in Already Dead examine characters who have come seeking California as the Golden State. Johnson's dissection of the Northern California lifestyle is thorough and no type is spared. The periphery around the miserable life of Nelson Fairchild is filled with cops escaping the brutality of Los Angeles, hippies who never forsook the land or the lifestyle, traveling European college students, crack-addicted merchant marines, and surfing Zen masters who rebuild classic automobiles. The author's insight regarding American society stands equal to the social criticisms of some of the better central European novelists. With writers like Kis, Kundera, and Robert Musil, Johnson seems to share the notion that any individual choice is also political choice; the narrative time frame of the novel parallels the buildup of tensions in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s. But Johnson's focus on certain fringe groups in today's society makes him peculiarly American, as much a chronicler of this dark age as Twain or Dos Passos were of previous generations.
But Already Dead cleverly subverts traditional novelistic expectations; where the reader is usually presented with a protagonist on some heroic quest, Johnson's Nelson Fairchild is no hero. He's flushed $90,000 of someone else's cocaine down the toilet and now has two goons after him seeking retribution. Fairchild cultivates a small marijuana crop as his prime source of income, and hires a lone drifter to kill his wife. And his father is a nefarious businessman who once slept with the wife of his incapacitated business partner, while the partner was forced to listen from his sickbed.
Nelson Fairchild, Junior, is already spiritually dead, and spends the last third of the novel trying to come to grips with his own fate. Van Ness, the drifter who Fairchild rescues from drowning and hires to kill his wife, neatly usurps Fairchild's place in the wife's bedroom. And it's Van Ness who gives Fairchild one of the larger clues that helps unlock the threads of this book.
There's also a thread that is this universe, identically, changed only enough to account for your continuing presence, and no more changed than that. Eventually you get every conceivable universe and every conceivable variation of each, including the variation of the tiniest action of a single molecule. Listen, sport, we're talking about quite a few universes here. And in every one?—you're miserable (316).
Early in the book, a minor character describes the words of the English language as being like prisms. "Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows." And the book's interwoven narratives are often interrupted by the text of obsessive, feverish letters written to various law enforcement agencies by Fairchild, and his insane brother. It is the beauty of Johnson's language, especially in these epistles, that evokes the language of religious ritual. The overtone of menace, the Gulf War in the distance, Already Dead deliberately conjures the specter of St. John on Patmos, and the dream-riddled composition of the Book of Revelation. Like his characters gathering to channel messages from the spirit world, Johnson writes as if he himself was possessed with an otherworldly gift. Already Dead may not be a breakthrough success; its subject matter and the intensity of its language and its violence will undoubtedly, and unfairly, limit his audience. But it should remind us to be grateful whenever a writer with Johnson's gifts chooses to take huge, and ultimately worthwhile, risks.