THE STARS AT NOON by Denis Johnson


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Where you can see the stars at noon, a Dante reader will know, is in Hell--and Johnson, who has plumbed the territory before in Angels (1983) here surveys a corner of it that is Sandinista Nicaragua, 1984. His narrator is a female American semi-journalist, semi-hooker, a woman whose entropy is her strongest suit, who hustles at the bar of the Inter-Continental Hotel in Managua against a background of brain-frying tropical heat and the appalling self-destruction of a hapless society. Not a book, in other words, you'd give as a gift to your local Witness for Peace: in Johnson's portrait, Nicaragua comes off as a catastrophe plain and simple. And a menacing one, too. After the narrator meets a pale, tall, bumbling Englishman who represents an oil company and seems to have accidentally made vague commitments to Sandinista, Contra, and CIA alike, she finds herself in love/lust with the schmo but also having to fear for her life: he's casually but irrevocably been marked, and she'll get it also unless they can escape the country at the nearest border. That, in the end, she will, saving herself but also betraying her lover, is somehow only fitting in the jaundiced, ashen-mouthed scheme of the book. Some fine, illusionless, poetic prose is put to this purpose--but Johnson is working more with language and mood here than with people: the Englishman is especially nebulous and jellied, while the narrator, who over-quotes W.S. Merwin, also speaks in what's-it-to-ya dialogue that would have given even Raymond Chandler pause. What is most memorable--why this might have been a better non-fiction book--are the atmospheres: sounds, feels, smells; Johnson delivers an evocative and potently depressing travelogue, and does so with more savvy and unromantic political velleity than is found in books by, say, Graham Greene or Joan Didion. Ugly as sin but a little too pleased with that, maybe.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1986
Publisher: Knopf