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Freedom Fighter 

Denis Johnson seeks out the American edge

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001

Here’s a thought: If you are an American, a real one, one who appreciates the difference between here and everywhere else, you‘re probably seeking one thing: freedom -- creative, financial, social or religious. You may seek to free yourself from morality’s grip; you may wish to fill yourself to the brim with it. You may try to escape anonymity -- gain fame -- or perhaps you want to relieve yourself of your public face. You certainly want the choice to be yours alone, though, for that‘s what freedom is, the option to be alone -- alone in your beliefs, alone in your physical being, alone in your prejudices, alone with your thoughts. Autonomy. The question: Is it worth it?

A fiction writer and poet best known for his novel-turned-film Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson has consistently, if elliptically, addressed the underbelly of what it means to be ”free.“ His seven novels constitute a rogues‘ gallery of the untethered and adrift. In Fiskadoro the lead character, Mr. Cheung, navigates a post-apocalyptic Florida, possessed by memories of the world that once was. The narrator of Jesus’ Son, Fuckhead, stumbles along in an alcoholic haze, following a blurry route toward grace. In Angels, a death sentence is the only way Bill Houston is permitted to reach this blessed state. (And as the gas chamber fills, he expresses the ultimate renunciation of freedom: ”I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.“) The Name of the World follows Michael Reed, a college professor just laid off from his job, as he marks the one-year anniversary of his family‘s death by car crash. They’re all alone and free, and there is no guarantee that they‘ll survive it.

Reading Johnson’s fiction, one could be excused for seeing a theme of redemption, alienation, grief. His new nonfiction book, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, reveals that Johnson‘s fictional concerns have roots in a world close to his own. Seek collects work from his sideline as a journalist -- he writes the occasional article for The Paris Review, Esquire, Harper’s Magazine and Rolling Stone -- and here his central fixation, his goal, his worry, is harder to miss. Johnson posits that we live in an impossible nation that grows only more difficult to exist within. ”Our riches afford us mobility, variety, and opportunity enough to drive us crazy as well as the time to go crazy in -- more and more of all of these as time goes on,“ he writes.

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For Johnson, the central rationale for this judgment is personal. The main ideas in Seek come from lessons learned in Johnson‘s younger years, when he remembers himself prancing through the ’60s, a ”pot-deranged beatnik.“ ”Hippies,“ a piece that recounts a trip to a Rainbow Gathering, a convocation of true believers that occurs annually at one of the U.S.‘s many national parks, brings back

those nights under a billboard on Wilshire where Joey and Carter and I found a bush to hide us, panhandler punks moving up and down the West Coast drunk on wine and dreaming of somewhere else, brings back those nights in a bag in the hills above Telegraph Avenue when I literally -- literally, because I tried -- could not get arrested, couldn’t land a vagrancy charge and a bed and a roof and three meals of jail food.

Johnson has led a free life, yet he‘s haunted by a persistent fear of freedom’s downside: Once you‘ve had a taste, can you ever have enough? And, more pointedly, is freedom too much for any of us to take? He asks hard questions about this thing we’re born to and searching for in America: ”But if freedom means self-responsibility -- what about the people who can‘t take care of themselves? My friend, I’m one of those people. Every day I don‘t bring down something fatal on my head is another miracle.“

Thankfully, Johnson’s reflections do move outward, and Seek is generous in presenting a wide body of external experiences the author has looked at through his self-colored glasses. In America, he takes us from his own Northwest back yard -- where militiamen creep -- to a Christian biker rally in Texas, to the Alaskan frontier, where he and his wife spend their honeymoon prospecting for gold and crash-landing planes with their guide.

A kind of melancholY patriot, Johnson loves the whole lot of it. His overwhelming impression of our nation is of ”an emphatic okayness.“ Those who fancy themselves intellectual, cosmopolitan or literary might not like the message of this book. It is, in the end, a defense of all things dumb and proud in America, real and rustic. Johnson understands and empathizes deeply with subjects others would not. The Christian bikers:

They‘ve come home to God, and to America, their country -- 57-channel America, Airport Terminal America, Visa-MasterCard America, America with cameras at your tragedy, at your triumph. Even the bikes have come home to America, the one where you can ride flat out a long ways, run your own shop, mind your own business, be who you are.

Overseas, Johnson has had near adventures in war zones like Somalia, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, only ratifying his love of home. If America has its problems, well, the rest of the world is worse. His war pieces feature no heroes, no battles and -- if you discount the culpability of the insane -- no villains. Confusion reigns.

At one point, Johnson writes, ”’WOW,‘ was all I could think of to say,“ although he finally comes to a fuller conclusion: In the States we are, at the very least, given the chance to destroy ourselves as we wish, with petty quests and deeds and substances. Not so in Africa, where without freedom, action is never even allowed. ”No, not these simple acts, but the names themselves condemned them, nothing more than their own names, because in much of the world nothing at all can actually be permitted, and simply to make your existence known is to demand punishment.“

In Johnson’s own life, he‘s thankfully found a way to avoid freedom’s pitfalls. It‘s hinted at in the short yet evocative sentence that appears on the back covers of his seven novels: ”He lives in northern Idaho.“ Nestled in this hidden, militia-ridden, dangerous and God-fearing America, he is able to avoid the meager sins and aspirations of the cosmopolitan lifestyle (i.e., drugs, riches, fame, ”hipness“). Seek is Johnson’s way of sharing this secret.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org
  • Denis Johnson seeks out the American edge

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