Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond

by Denis Johnson
ISBN: 0060930470

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Seek: Reports From the Edges of America and Beyond
by Kevin Chong

Since Denis Johnson's first work of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America and Beyond appeared in the spring of 2001, these pieces, set in current geopolitical zones of nightmare like Liberia and Afghanistan, seem both topical and prescient, his personal obsessions in line with the world's. With his laconic and abyss-gawking voice, Johnson, poet and fiction writer, has demonstrated a sympathy for restless lowlifes and reckless oddballs. Be they the midwestern drifter of his seminal story collection Jesus' Son or the bedraggled, mourning professor of his last novel, The Name of the World, all of them share a need to "stare at a blackness that seems to reach down into the heart of all experience."
Eccentricity and darkness figure prominently in this collection of essays, memoirs, and journalism written originally for periodicals like The Paris Review and Harper's. In the first piece, "The Civil War in Hell", Johnson is dispatched in 1990 to Liberia, shortly after one of its faction leaders Prince Johnson has killed Samuel K. Doe, Liberia's president.
While Johnson capably encapsulates Liberia's political strife and critiques U.S. foreign policy, he also colours his piece with a novelist's eye: soldiers from one faction dress in looted wigs and wedding dresses, while another be-wigged group fires their guns from a hotwired Mercedes; a supply ship is prevented from loading while Liberians starve (but not the dogs, who feed on corpses). The piece ends with a visit to Prince Johnson's headquarters, beginning with a reggae performance by the general and ending with a video played of Doe's gruesome torture.
When not writing about war zones, Johnson finds himself drawn to the characters populating America's margins. "Hippies" details the week-long Rainbow Gathering filled with aging peaceniks, while "Bikers for Jesus" is a sympathetic portrayal of bikers-many recovering alcoholics and ex-cons-who have found Christianity. While the least interesting essays are memoir pieces about a miserable childhood camping trip and a honeymoon spent panning for gold in Alaska, Johnson succeeds when he tries to locate the turmoil-a rancorous, ungovernable streak that's been largely contained in the 20th century, but not extinguished-within American life. And in himself. Johnson's "The Militia in Me" describes his own justifiable resentments toward the government and the truly scary people they have led him to-people whose bookshelves have titles like None Dare Call It Conspiracy or Negro: Serpent, Beast, and Devil:

"The people I talked with seemed to imply that the greatest threat to liberty came from a conspiracy... As a framework for thought, this has its advantages. It's quicker to call a thing a crime and ask Who did it? Than to call it a failure and set about answering the question What happened?"

Johnson writes sentences that radiate intelligence and epigrammatic insight. Unlike other accomplished stylists-say, Don Delillo or Peter Carey-who are capable of prose so lovely it's hypnotic, the spell Johnson casts never lulls one to submission. His sentences, which veer from moments of spectral lyricism to slangy put-downs, are too unpredictable for that:

"The moonrise starts in the hills like a conflagration, almost as fiery as the dawn, and it's understandable that one of the first Europeans to visit Afghanistan was asked by two Mullahs to settle a dispute for them as to whether the moon was actually also the sun. Understandable that he told them, yes, the moon is indeed the sun."

This is from "Three Deserts," the book's most formally daring piece, in which juxtaposed are war-ravaged Afghanistan, a doomsday cult's compound in Arizona, and Saudi Arabia before the Gulf War. As the reader is transported from one desert to another, Johnson abridges distances and entangles U.S. foreign policy with the apocalypse with Islamic in-fighting.
Johnson returns to Liberia in "The Small Boys' Unit", Seek's final, longest, and most powerful selection. On assignment with the New Yorker, Johnson flies into Cote d'Ivoire where he's to be taken into Liberia to meet Charles Taylor, another leader of Liberia's warring factions and now exiled dictator. Having spoken to various contacts and officials, and still waiting to cross the border, Johnson chooses to enter Liberia illegally. The trip through Liberia is an ordeal; while his meeting is continually delayed, Johnson is held prisoner in Taylor's lavish guest quarters.
When finally held, the interview with Taylor, surrounded by a band of child-orphans bearing guns, proves uneventful. Leaving Liberia, Johnson is arrested-twice-by officials and questioned. Not knowing better, Johnson names the people who helped him into Liberia. As Johnson scrambles to protect his new friends, he realizes he should've lied all along: "I must never speak of actual facts. I must traffic only in fictions. These fictions will be judged according to their usefulness in the very short term."
Reading like Third-World Kafka, "The Small Boys' Unit" manages to be engrossing even when the meeting with Taylor-the actual journalism-is anticlimactic. Here and elsewhere in Seek, one is amazed by how Denis Johnson transforms the journey into the destination.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us