Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881
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 begins to slip away, the language used to tell the tale constantly re-reminds readers that they are reading writing of the highest order.
Already Dead begins on August 7, 1990, a day when Carl Van Ness is driving along the sleepy towns along U.S. 101, along what is known as “The Lost Coast”—“places a person could disappear into . . . like little naps you might never wake up from.” As he heads up the coast to visit an old friend from his days as a Merchant Marine, he is stopped by an unnamed police officer recently relocated north from Los Angeles, who is, from this point on, unsuspectingly pulled into a world that he will never fully understand. The name of this policeman, the reader later learns, is John Navarro— every noir novel needs a cop to solve the mystery behind its murders, though, in Johnson’s skilled hands, it is the story of Navarro that breathes a sense of the everyday into a story that is steeped in the surreal. It is Navarro, not Fairchild, who holds the loose threads of this novel together. Navarro is the man who is first forced, because of his job, to officiate over these dramas—“the disappearance of Nelson Fairchild, the suicide/murder of Fairchild, Jr.’s brother Billy, the death of Nelson Fairchild, Sr.—all of which seem to be called forth into action by a blood pact between Fairchild, Jr., and Van Ness. Navarro, however, becomes the spine and the binding that keeps this book intact, the one character driven not by rhyme but by reason. He is the investigator, the one who, like the reader, is struggling to figure out what, exactly, is going on in this half-baked, carnival world made up of hippies and witches, bikers and Buddhists, surfers and psycho-babbler seekers of new religions and new creeds.
Johnson is writing at the height of his powers when he takes his readers inside the physical worlds of his characters, especially the bars, the low-down holes in the wall, where men such as Fairchild find themselves seeking comfort in the ticking light of neon signs. Johnson is a master of the kind of barroom banter that hard, desperate drinking often brings with it. In Johnson’s world, a bar is like a hospital emergency room where lives are often saved: A barkeep is nothing less than a nurse, whose job it is to minister medicine to those in need of healing.
It is ironic that the one character who seems to have gained the most—at least in this world—is none other than Van Ness, the man who had written himself off as “already dead.” In the end, a failed suicide attempt, coupled with a botched murder, seems to shake Van Ness awake, out of one world and into the next.
Nothing short of dying, however, will save Fairchild from himself. Fairchild, who had everything to gain by plotting the murder of his wife, ends up losing it all. Only an awakening into another world will redeem him and make him whole: “On the day of his death Nelson Fairchild received numerous grants of peace and grief, proofs of the beauty of the world, clarifications, deep consolations, and happiness.” Fairchild ends up on his hands and knees, in a place where
demons loitered here in their nakedness and neediness and strangerness, other wraiths, including Indians crucified on the trees and cowboys with their scalped, decorticated craniums. All seemed the sources of little illuminations. Including himself: a man of dreams and failure.
This vision of the afterlife is a place where murderers kiss the murdered, where even Fairchild is one of “the sources of little illuminations.” This is the place where Fairchild is left alone to work out his own salvation: “I’m here to decide whether to let me life go, or fight to stay inside it. To face the music, or stay dead.” He confesses: “I just want to let myself be guided, in this solitude, by my truth.” What he discovers could not be a simpler truth: “I am dying.” It is through the metamorphosis of dying, Johnson wants us to believe, that we each become God. “I must keep it a secret,” Fairchild adds. “I can show this only to the people I’ve failed, and to those I’d had the privilege of betraying.” Navarro is the man who ends up in possession of Fairchild’s words—the last three of which, “I am dying,” are written illegibly in blood, a final and moving testimony to a life gripped though ready to be given up in a moment of resignation, a moment of seeing into whatever world comes next.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, in American life, there are no second acts. Here, however, in a world made by Johnson, the second act is the one that counts. The first act, the first life, is the warm-up, the preparation for the life that comes after. What counts is that a man such as Carl Van Ness is capable of waking up, of changing, of achieving grace. What counts is that a man such as Bill Houston, the antihero of Angels, is able to summon forth a prayer as his final act, as he literally draws his last breath inside the gas chamber. What counts, for Nelson Fairchild, is that he is prepared to meet his maker, ready to make amends. Like Johnson himself, Fairchild is working out his salvation with words, with the sprawling ninety-page letter that ends up in the hands of Navarro (“confession or conjecture? Murder plot or movie plot?”).
Readers are fortunate to have with them, in this world, the words of Denis Johnson. Although Already Dead is a book betrayed by its own ambitious design, it is a novel rich with lyrical rewards. Readers should be glad that Johnson has not kept what he knows a secret, that he has spoken and shown, firsthand, what it is like to come back from the land of the living dead.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, August, 1997, p. 1878.
Chicago Tribune. September 21, 1997, XIV, p. 5.
Elle. August, 1997, p. 64.
Library Journal. CXXII, August, 1997, p. 130.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 28, 1997, p. 13.
New York. XXX, August 4, 1997, p. 57.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, August 31, 1997, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, July 7, 1997, p. 49.
San Francisco Chronicle. October 19, 1997, p. REV5.
Time. CL, August 11, 1997, p. 77.
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