God’s Neon

Already Dead: A California Gothic BY Denis Johnson. New York: Harper Perennial. 448 pages. $16.

The cover of Already Dead: A California Gothic

PEOPLE LOVE TALKING ABOUT DENIS JOHNSON, but they do not love talking about his fifth novel, Already Dead. Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review tagged the book in August 1997, and it has yet to be untagged. She wrote that Already Dead was “a virtually unreadable book that manages to be simultaneously pretentious, sentimental, bubble-headed and gratuitously violent.” Kakutani got flagrant with the kicker, calling Already Dead an “inept, repugnant novel.” David Gates was more generous in the Sunday Book Review, though not enough to overwrite Kakutani. Few writers fell for the book when it came out, and when Johnson died, in 2017, most of the celebrations of his work dismissed Already Dead or omitted it entirely. In an otherwise fond piece from 2018, J. Robert Lennon called Already Dead “a barely coherent exercise in gothic horror.”

Although I think the book is coherent, and an important window into Johnson’s cosmology, Already Dead certainly is not linear—a chunk of the book is a mosaic of lost souls taking their own existential temperatures. Johnson’s novel owes a debt to Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, lifting its title and some of its worldview from a line in Stone’s book: “‘We’re already dead,’ Dieter said. ‘It’s all manifestation.’” Many of the characters in Already Dead are very eloquent in describing their paranoid hallucinations. Some are trying to figure out whether or not they exist, while the reader is trying to figure out if they can tell. What if everyone really is just manifesting?

Two key characters, Carl Van Ness and a woman known only as Yvonne, are defined as “walk-ins.” Van Ness’s friend Frankheimer tells us what this means: “Sometimes a person dies, and before the soul’s hardly out, another one walks in.” The book’s narration itself can feel like a long series of walk-ins: First- and third-person voices alternate asynchronously, jumping back and forth between events in 1990 and 1991. And yet, even if it takes a minute for these elements to come into focus—and it does—what emerges is patterned and coherent, even careful. Think of Already Dead as a deep, doorless church with around-the-clock services. Years come and go, and so do the ghosts. What lasts is the testimony of the faithful and fallen alike.

Already Dead borrows the comically brief plot from a two-page poem by Bill Knott (“Poem Noir”) and breathes it into 435 pages of “California gothic.” Johnson’s gothic is interior, his California irresolute. Speaking to Eric Elshtain in 1993 about beginning the novel, Johnson said, “I’m writing another thing that’s set in California. You know, people milling around and chanting and all that.” They do mill and chant, but mostly they talk, each and every character pitching their case to the heavens. Already Dead is Johnson’s box set, fifteen takes of “Nearer, My Bad Decision, to Thee,” along with all the studio banter, playing in a barroom jukebox on the coast of California, a state that flickers between heaven and hell like God’s neon.

“What will Heaven be like? What will we do in Heaven all day?” PowerPoint presentation, ca. 2016.
“What will Heaven be like? What will we do in Heaven all day?” PowerPoint presentation, ca. 2016.

Knott’s poem reads like notes for an unwritten novel—nobody has a name and nobody is characterized. A Man drags Another Man from a pond, preventing him from drowning himself. A Man then convinces Another Man to kill his Wife and go to the electric chair (suicide by another name, and therefore appealing to Another Man). Another Man agrees but everything goes sour. First, A Man’s father and brother die and A Man is suspected of killing them. Later, A Man drowns, for real. In the final turnabout, A Man’s Wife inherits the family money and runs off with Another Man, who was supposed to kill her.

In Johnson’s version of the story, these events all happen in a slow tumble. All of these loons are given ample time on the stand, and there is no clock on anyone’s lunatic brief. Already Dead is not so much a whodunit as a whosaidit. What these people think they are doing, as they seek to narrow the distance between themselves and their God, is the meat of this book. This is testimony in the ancient sense—descriptions of heightened states and declarations of faith, though rarely do two people testify in unison.

Johnson himself was not raised in any faith but identified as Christian and followed the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, a program that suggests to its members that they establish contact with a “God of your understanding.” Johnson’s first novel, 1983’s Angels, begins with this: “This book is dedicated to H. P. and to those who have shared their experience, strength, and hope.” “H. P.” is “higher power,” the unspecified God of AA, and the rest of the dedication is taken from the preamble read at the beginning of AA meetings. (Johnson used this dedication in more than one book.) In a 1983 essay about the connections between AA and the church, John Woolverton wrote that the fact that AA “did not wholly lose a sense of the transcendent power of God or fold it entirely into an Immanence which would become simply the communal mind of the group is to its credit. Indeed something of a miracle.” As for “the communal mind of the group,” and for AA’s meeting format, Already Dead is nothing if not a group of people sharing, at length.

Basically our culture does not have a religion,” Johnson told Elshtain. “Where is spirituality? It’s going to be expressed one way or the other. If we’re going to fashion a concern for everything, we need a spirituality.” A “concern for everything” and a gentle sense of redemption run through Already Dead. The notion of seeking is established in the first paragraph. The wayward and suicidal Carl Van Ness is driving along the 101 in Northern California. He looks out at the “small isolated towns” and thinks about how you can “stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” Johnson plants the fellowship and the church right up front.

Johnson told Elshtain that the main character in his new book “is concerned with what’s ethically important.” That character is not Van Ness but the deeply unpleasant Nelson Fairchild Jr., an alcoholic who says to his lover after having sex: “I’m thinking how nice it would be for us if most of the people I’m supposed to love would drop dead.” At this point, he’s already made a deal with Van Ness to kill his wife, a sculptor named Winona. As for killing the rest of his family, it’s just ideation, though it ends up happening without him, and he’s blamed for it. Karmic or cosmic? My theory is most readers were hoping for the former and got the latter. The trial is what Johnson gives us, not the verdict.

When Van Ness and Fairchild first meet, spirits are high. Fairchild is on the deck of his own house, standing in the rain. He experiences “a moment of tenderness, the smell of rain overpowering, as thick and unbreathable as smoke, and almost sentimental, not just the atmosphere’s pregnancy and ripeness, but the strains of grief rising up from somewhere—from within.” He follows by asking someone, or something, “I’m weeping, and asking a ludicrous question: will my life ever be like this?” A consummate addict, Fairchild is the kind of guy who can be simultaneously high on life and worried he won’t ever get that high again.

Fairchild watches Van Ness walk toward him. “The figure coming up the driveway was clearly a thing too sorrowful to be alive, it was a black absence, the ash of grief, a lost, wounded soul, but was now clearly, as it came even with me, heading right for the pond, a man walking.” Is Van Ness already dead? “He gave the impression of being somebody who’d rejected the routine forced on him and decided just to walk on the surface of the world, a pilgrim.”

Johnson then helps unlock the book. “Enlightened ones may live everywhere among us, looking like functional failures.” The loons who hold forth here are not being discounted, because their madness might be enlightenment. The cop who spends the most time trying to unpack the crimes (if they are crimes) is John Navarro. Readers looking for him to dispense some noir justice will be frustrated. He is there, in every sense, to listen.

Navarro’s character in Already Dead allows Johnson to do one of his favorite things: present very high people talking to not-high people. (Think of Fuckhead holding forth in the hospital in Jesus’ Son.) Frankheimer (aka Frankenstein), who seems to be permanently lodged in a state of drug-induced psychosis, runs into Navarro and declares that someone is trying to “yank” on his mind with “chemical mists.”

“Do you know anything about acupuncture? The I-Ching? Ancient Chinese philosophies?”

There was a way of sliding around a thing like this. You had to regard it as encased in glass. “I’m not sure I have your name right,” Navarro said.

Navarro is something of a confessor priest to this group. He reads several times from a confession (which is also sort of an accusation and a diary) that Nelson Fairchild Jr. writes, and reproduces eight pages of the paranoid letters that Fairchild’s brother, Bill, sends to the police department. Bill Fairchild writes that he has to hide from death rays behind a “hill which contains zinc, zirconium compounds, and combinations not to be revealed.” Bill sends the police roughly the same liturgy over and over, and this is where Johnson’s empathy for the damned shows. Bill Fairchild’s repetition is true to the cadence of the paranoid, which Johnson presents in full, without commentary. Bill doesn’t have to become a figure of fun or some kind of visionary seer—no extremes. His struggle is no more or less valid than anyone else’s.

Winona’s friend Yvonne, a practicing Wiccan, presides over a séance that serves as a town hall for the characters and transforms (she claims) into someone named Randall MacNammara, who speaks to the dead. In an echo of Bill Fairchild, Yvonne (not Randall) talks about how “radar domes” interfere with our “life field.” Yvonne also says reasonable things, like “sickness is anger expressing itself in our perceptions about our bodies.” This is a modified version of “sickness is anger taken out upon the body, so that it will suffer pain,” from A Course in Miracles, which Johnson often read. A long and slippery book by Columbia psychology professor Helen Schucman (in her account, the text was dictated to her by Jesus), ACiM stresses the power of thought to change reality and the coincidence of God and love, which are more or less the same. In an “Author’s Note,” Johnson writes that “the dialog is sprinkled with quotes from the text of A Course in Miracles in a way that distorts their intent.” Distortion it is, in that Schucman’s book advises against the kind of negative ideation most of these characters seem to live for. And that’s where Johnson keeps his characters—far from any gods but consistently trying to figure out how far away, exactly, they are.

Johnson refuses all of the resolution that genre demands. Van Ness, one of the few people in the book who actually does kill someone, has a vision on his way to that murder. You’d think he’d be staring damnation in the face, but no.

The woods gave out on a gully to his right; the gully disappeared in vaporous eastward currents; in the currents he saw an entity fashioned of the vapor: an angel with great white wings uplifted from its shoulders, standing upright, an angel profoundly corrupted and profoundly feminine, drinking the blood of its young and turning to suckle strangers. Mother I have your diamonds. The prayers of the Inquisitors. She trailed them in her tresses as dew.

Johnson doesn’t mock anybody in Already Dead who has a mission, and he refuses to tell us if Van Ness is the angel or the Inquisitor. Here, the holy is brought through as a samizdat theorem maintained by the marginal. For Johnson, American spirituality is itself suspended, atomized like a cattail held out the window. It has dispersed and is now found in mutual-aid groups and self-help guides and obscure fellowships that are hard to describe and easy to dismiss. I don’t think everyone in this book understands the things they chase or believe in, and none of that makes their faith less sincere. More than the belief itself, the act of believing is Johnson’s hot spot. Already Dead is about the noise that this very American fellowship makes, climbing noisily toward something they may not understand but will talk about, over and over, unto death.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.