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ALREADY DEAD by Denis Johnson

ALREADY DEAD

A California Gothic

By Denis Johnson

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-018737-9
Publisher: HarperCollins

 A kinky jeremiad about drug culture burnout (and fallout), powered by amusingly feverish images of California-as-Armageddon, from the poet and author whose recent fiction includes Jesus' Son (1992) and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991). Johnson's latest is composed of a series of linked narratives set along the northern California coast in 199091, and centered in the psychic unraveling of Nelson Fairchild, a 30ish rich boy marijuana-grower who has unwisely cheated a murderous colleague, and spends his generally stoned, panicked days simultaneously fleeing the hit men who pursue him and arranging his own hit on his wife (who controls their finances, and in any case has been supplanted in Nelson's lustful affections by his mistress Melissa). Johnson surrounds Nelson's ordeal with a garish jumble of variously related outlaws and misfits, including Carl Van Ness, a philosophical drifter who vacillates between the consolations promised by suicide (Johnson's title denotes Van Ness's passive mind-set) and the intriguing prospect of becoming Nelson's hired gun; Wilhelm Frankheimer, a gigantic acidhead merchant marine turned blacksmith; Nelson's gently delirious brother William, who lives in the woods and writes deranged letters filled with cosmic paranoia to the police; a cop named Navarro who's drawn into their increasingly bizarre dance of death; and several alternately lissome and lethal women who, when not fulfilling their men's erotic fantasies, are blithely double-crossing them. There's also an effective Grand Guignol appearance by Nelson Fairchild päre, the kind of venomous old man whom John Huston always played in movies. The book does move right along, despite its bulk, and the writing is frequently charged with energy and wit. But it contains a little too much of everything: fashionable despair (though Nelson's imagined ``demon'' has a gritty surrealism), New Age meandering, and fitful little explosions of overcalculated violence. A novel this one resembles, Charlie Smith's The Lives of the Dead, did it better. Johnson's attempt at a noir epic intermittently excites and teases, but doesn't satisfy.