Matthew Specktor: The Last Book I Loved, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond

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I read Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond in a hotel room.

Nowhere fancy: I was in Asheville, North Carolina, facing nothing more uncomfortable than bugs and frogs and humidity, the steady chatter of fat people plunking themselves into the swimming pool outside. This luxe southern summer was a weird backdrop for Denis Johnson’s gnarly accounts of Africa and Idaho, but the book had fallen into my hand unwittingly, while I was scrambling out the door and looking for something to read on the plane. I lashed out at the shelf while the cab started honking, and Seek was what I came away with.

Seek. The title implies worlds of volition, but is there a less volitional writer alive than Denis Johnson? Windblown, drug-addled (whether actually so or more historically, within the provinces of his fiction, at least), prone to peopling his stories with coasting fuck-ups. Most of the people in Johnson’s work don’t seem to have much idea how they got there, whether “there” is a hospital or a Holiday Inn or a cell on death row. They don’t “seek” much. But boy do they ever find.

I love Johnson, sometimes. I love Angels, and about two-thirds of Jesus’ Son (the book as a totality, sure, but some of the individual stories are, in fact, weak), Resuscitation of A Hanged Man (because how could you not love a book that includes the sentence, “And on his ass the sad assassin sat”?) These are great books, but Johnson has certainly written some indifferent ones. Tree of Smoke seems to me pretty erratic, and The Name of The World strikes me as being outright bad. Then again, I like writers who are sometimes bad, and at the very least mistrust those who never are. It usually means they aren’t trying hard enough. Give me Philip Roth (intermittently quite lousy) over William Trevor any day of the week.

Seek is bookended with essays on Liberia. The first, “The Civil War in Hell,” describes Johnson’s presence in Monrovia in 1990, shortly after Prince Johnson’s forces had captured the president and sawn off his ears. The second, “The Small Boys Unit,” is some sort of minor masterpiece, a Heart of Darkness-like account of Johnson’s flailing attempts to profile Charles Taylor for the New Yorker in 1992. In between, there are accounts of visits to Christian biker rallies, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mormon compounds…in short, just about every place a sensible person (although, of course, Johnson is anything but “a sensible person”) would choose to avoid. If what you’re seeking is to be found in those places, it might be best to change your aims, anyway.

Except that’s the point. No one, I think, captures better certain kinds of ecstasy, a spastic transcendence, better than Johnson, and no one better describes the worlds we’d rather not be living in. Jesus’ Son has been talked to death, but I think Angels is arguably the better book. Beginning in a bus station and ending on death row, with a long stretch in the desert in between, Angels amounts to a guided tour of the most forsaken places on earth. (Where else does Johnson stage his fiction? ERs, abortion clinics…) Seek is the same. Conscientiously so, and with a more knowing—at least, more intentional—awareness of itself as such.

I found myself thinking, in my thoroughly stupid perambulations with the book (lugging a suitcase across a Ramada Inn parking lot, haggling with people at the Delta ticket counter), that just about everywhere is worth avoiding, that even the earth’s green places house more than their share of misery and boredom. Which is why Johnson’s book is thrilling. Not because it offers views of things us pampered first-worlders know not quite enough about (though it does, of course), but because, too, those views are so personal. Johnson’s haplessness, his strange—and most likely exaggerated—incompetence keeps clouding the frame. (Indeed, if he were this incompetent, he’d almost assuredly be dead, a fact of which he’s savvy enough to remind us.) “Friends who know me to be of weak character might be interested to learn I was once nearly saved from it,” a seemingly feather-light essay about Johnson’s childhood tenure in the Boy Scouts begins. That “weak character” is belied everywhere in the book, perhaps even by the things that also support it: by the steely hogging of psychedelics (“I said I’d split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah, I never quite became a hippie. And I’ll never stop being a junkie.”), in “Hippies,” and by Johnson’s fumbling-yet-persistent effort to bail out an arrested Nigerian student in “The Small Boys Unit.” His character gets in the way, but it’s the book’s real subject.

“My parents raised me to love all the earth’s peoples. Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming N****rs! N****rs! N****rs! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me.”

I try to imagine what The New Yorker’s editors would’ve done with such a passage, had Johnson not opted instead to keep their expense money and never deliver his promised piece at all.

I’d describe Seek as “maddeningly erratic,” but it’s just this bifucation that kicks my ass: Johnson’s bravery and his cowardice, his clowning and, in something more slight like “The Lowest Bar in Montana,” his flat-footed efforts to please. His greatness comes from contradictions that can’t cancel one another out. He’s a hippie, sure, but there are right wing undertones all over. (Undertones? Heck, “The Militia in Me” and “Run, Rudolph, Run,” about abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, suggest more robust sympathies.) It’s the chaos of his character, which is just about the only place anything interesting ever gets found, that makes this book happen. And by the time we get to “The Small Boys Unit,” and Johnson—arrested at the Ivory Coast’s border—collides with a wayward American missionary whose kindness seems purely pro forma, we understand what it is to be lost.

Green lizards crawled all over our feet while he prayed. Red-headed lizards ran by on two legs like Martians excited to be landed on our world. I wept, I snuffled. I was right to call myself confused.

Johnson’s Africa, even exoticized beyond its usual terrestrial limits, seems closer to a Delta Airlines ticket counter than to anything we can’t understand. It also seems non-navigable, impossible, and frightening beyond belief, even as the human faces he encounters there (a host of preposterous-seeming guides: Winston Holder, Lincoln Smythe, the indelible Augustus Shaacks…but also the velour-clad Charles Taylor) shine benignly. Such is hell, though, and such is the human scene. Such are the things we go looking for. They’re those very ones we can never leave behind.


Matthew Specktor is the author of That Summertime Sound, and of American Dream Machine, which is forthcoming from Tin House. He is Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →