‘Seek’ and Ye Shall Find Yourself
The author of 'Jesus' Son' and 'The Name of the World' travels the globe and finds the familiar and the fascinating
The subtitle is misleading. Denis Johnson’s Seek is not so much a collection of journalistic efforts as it is a fragmented memoir, diffracting observations of fringe elements at home and abroad through the prism of the author’s opinions. He travels to biker revivals, Alaska, the American Southwest and Liberia. He recounts his brief Boy Scout experiment in the Philippines. He marvels at the intersection between his values and those of violent militia members. And while Johnson always remains the outsider—a stranger attempting self-understanding through observing the natives—the strength of his narratives stems from immersion and interaction. For instance, when Johnson lives with hippies, he does as hippies do, with results both poignant and humorous. In Seek, the narrator rarely reduces to a cipher.
Johnson is a writer of some success—his pseudo-novel Jesus’ Son, comprised of close-knit stories, was recently filmed. In addition to novels and stories, Johnson also writes poetry, and from reading Seek you’d know it. His sparkling prose is simultaneously laconic and melancholy, marked by a sense of inner wonder as he travels around and talks, thinks and sometimes writes about it. He marvelously describes scenes and contrasts them with what their inhabitants are up to. “West Africa,” he writes, “is the land where God came to learn to wait. And then wait a little longer.” He describes how a ship of relief supplies for the Liberian civil war has to wait for rice. And then wait for the slings to load the rice, and the man who knows where the slings are, and then the man with the keys to that place. And so on. And then, he cuts to a press conference where a military leader, Prince Johnson, is being interviewed by Western journalists. “Prince Johnson’s eyes show a little confusion. ‘I asked [a rival leader] about the Liberian people’s money. I asked him so many things. Yes’ [Prince Johnson] says, ‘I cut off his ears and made him eat them.’” Prince Johnson later eats and drinks and jokes with the interviewers. None of it ever seems like it could be real, but it is all real.
So it goes. In Johnson’s reports, the possible and the impossible are always made to hold hands. In Kabul, Afghanistan, he stays behind to witness the takeover by the new religious faction, and finds himself one of a few occupants of a sumptuous and largely abandoned hotel. “The new faction has outlawed all music, but they’re not bothered if I play the jazz program on the BBC, because, as a Westerner, I’m past all punishment, I can’t be saved, I’m going to hell.” In Liberia, citizens have the utmost reverence for the United States and wait eagerly for the aid they expect. “Liberians don’t know that most Americans couldn’t guess on which of the seven continents they actually reside, that images of their war have rarely been shown on U.S. television, that their troubles have scarcely been mentioned on U.S. radio.”
At times he is as bewildered by his own country. Of militant militia members, he comments, “Failures [of government] need correction. Crimes cry out for punishment. Some ask: How do we fix it? Others: Who do we kill?” And yet there is never a situation so obscured that Johnson doesn’t see the other side. He sees the frustrations of militia members as a combination of a bizarre anti-Semitic cosmogony and valid suspicions of encroachment by the federal government on tangible and theoretical conceptions of freedom. He listens to the songs written for bombing suspect/fugitive Eric Rudolph and hears people who want to believe only the best—that yes, Rudolph blew up an abortion clinic (or rather, “baby-killing factory”), but no, he never meant to hurt any of the doctors or patients.
Johnson alternates introspection with analysis, but can also be purely hilarious. He writes of going to Alaska to pan for gold and getting a flight with “the famous Richard Busk,” a local pilot. After crashing (mostly harmlessly) he learns that the pilot is famous for consistently pummeling the ground with his airplane, sometimes barely escaping with his life. His attempt to reconnect with his less discretional youth ends in a mushroom overdose in a tent surrounded by thousands of hippies in a forest. “I crawl into my tent. It’s four feet away but somehow a little bit farther off than the end of time. It’s dark and closed and I’m safe from what’s out there but not from what’s in here—the impending cataclysm, the imploding immenseness, the jocular enormity.” Luminous perfect phrases like “jocular enormity” stud the book like jewels (Johnson on the first atomic bomb test: “the orange fireball levitating amid its electric-blue halo”). The inventiveness, the eye for detail, and the understated irony of Johnson’s prose make for vibrant, rhythmic writing that would be compelling even without its off-center subjects.
In the last chapter, Johnson goes back to Liberia at the request of Esquire magazine. This section is simultaneously an unfiltered report of events and an absurd hallucination, with Johnson portraying the Africa of Liberia not so much as the Dark Continent as another planet. Menacingly titled “The Small Boys’ Unit,” Johnson writes of trying to reach and interview Charles Taylor, one of Liberia’s leaders. He gets stuck on buses that sometimes decide not to go anywhere. He gets his passport only mistakenly stamped, and nearly sends his guide to jail by accident. He is arrested countless times, at least once without realizing he is under arrest for several days. He is transported by a magical displaced Italian who has “not much more than the tendons and skin and astonishment of a baby bird,” an “immense African wife” and the ability to curse at everything. The Small Boys’ Unit turns out to be Taylor’s bodyguards, a corps of orphaned boys with machine guns. The question of whether Johnson actually reaches Taylor becomes exciting, so it would be less than fair to give anything away.
Seek is a wonderful travel book about traveling places people don’t usually go. In fact, in a way it is about traveling to places, physical and mental, that most people would rather avoid. Johnson comes, and he sees, and he writes about it. Sometimes he passes judgment. Unsurprisingly, he puts it best himself: “I want to float above the fray, want to be like Walt Whitman, ‘both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.’” Johnson’s only shortfall is the shortness of his output—I’d like to find some more strange places to send him to and see what happens. But Seek’s ending suggests the edges of America and beyond have left him in need of a little vacation. Best let him rest.
REPORTS FROM THE EDGES OF AMERICA & BEYOND
by Denis Johnson
240 pp., $24