Study Guide

Already Dead

by Denis Johnson

Already Dead Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Denis Johnson’s previous novel, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1990), was set on the “sandy outskirts of the last town in America,” as far east as one can go without walking and falling off into water. That “last town” was Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the novel itself—as the title suggests—took readers inside the world of a man who had come back from the dead, who had, in a sense, been resurrected after having made an attempt to put an end to his own life. In his follow-up book, the collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son (1993), Johnson turned his narrative attentions to the midwestern malingerings of a misfit drug addict, who finds himself at the epicenter of a number of disconnected human tragedies. Johnson’s characters often wake up, in the end, to find a sense of the meaningful in a life lived, up until then, without much reason to live. Take, for instance, Bill Houston, the death- row protagonist from Johnson’s first novel, Angels (1984), a man who finds meaning, compassion, hope, and grace only in the moments right before and immediately after his life has come to an end in a gas chamber. Likewise, in Already Dead, the equally dark fifth novel from Johnson, it is only at the end, when it is too late to turn back, that the blinding veil of darkness gives way to light, to sight.

Already Dead continues Johnson’s literary migration westward, from the farthest point east in the United States to the cliffsides farthest west, to coastal Northern California, a world of ocean views obscured by fog, a world that, as one character puts it near the novel’s close, was “supposed to be a place of healing. I don’t know what happened. Somebody did something very dark.” That somebody is Nelson Fairchild, Jr., the man who sets the plot into action by planning the murder of his wife Winona. Carl Van Ness, a man who sees himself as someone who is “already dead,” who is plotting to put an end to his own life, is the man who walks into Fairchild’s world and makes the very idea of murder possible by nonchalantly agreeing to be the one who will kill Fairchild’s wife. Van Ness is a man who figures he has nothing left to lose. He agrees to kill, but not for money, which Fairchild offers. Instead, Van Ness says, simply, as if he is agreeing to go out and buy a loaf of bread, “I’ll do it. Sure . . . I will kill this person for you.” At this point, it is a game, a gamble, and, if Fairchild wins, he will be freer and richer for it. He will be rid of his wife, free to carry on with his lover, and he will still retain the rights to inherit the Fairchild fortune—the miles of undeveloped coastal property lorded over by his dying father, a tyrannical Catholic who has willed the rights to his daughter-in-law in an attempt to keep her and his son together, in holy matrimony, until only death breaks them apart.

When the attempt to kill the wife backfires, the plot of this dense novel gets even messier. Complications abound. Nelson Fairchild, Sr., dies. Nelson Fairchild, Jr., is shadowed by two hit men, who have been hired by Harry Lally, an ex-drug associate whom Fairchild owes “a vast sum of money” for a cocaine deal that Fairchild failed to complete. Fairchild’s initial problems, born of greed and the quick-fix need for money, quickly turn into a struggle to stay alive. Meanwhile, the novel plows onward and plunges into the lives of the other characters—a cop, a waitress, a pot-grower, a minister, the two hit men—all of whom are linked together in a plot summoned into action by Fairchild, Jr., who, as “the knot, the gnarled dark intersection” of the forthcoming dramas, is the loose string in this balled-up yarn of a novel that soon begins to unspool out of control.

Problems begin to set in not only for the characters but also for the book itself. The far too frequent point-of-view switches make this a novel hard to grip and difficult to follow, as if the reader, too, is looking out at the ocean through a constant fog and breathing in the smoke from one of Fairchild’s previous crops of coastal California pot. Unlike Johnson’s other novels, Already Dead is weakened, structurally, by the author’s lofty vision of grandness. Put simply, this book suffers from too large and too sweeping a narrative scope. The narrative arc that begins to swing outward at the beginning of the book swings back too late. What saves the novel is what, in the end, makes Johnson the highly admired writer that he is: His sentences sweep the reader, unwillingly, into his world. Even if the story that is being told...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)