Reports From The Edges of America & Beyond by Denis Johnson

by Tara Taghizadeh

3 May 2002


Hospitality and Revenge

Where where where have we been? Where did we go?
—Denis Johnson

Picture this: An astonishingly talented writer bitten by the travel bug decides, as most adventurers do, to wander the road not taken; to delve into the mysteries of the world — a place which is remotely familiar only as a result of a few momentary blips on the television screen. The result? A sad, poignant picture of harsh truths, and the realization that, as Thomas Beecham once said, adventure seekers often return home with the sense that, yes, they have seen the world, and frankly, formed a poor opinion of it.

cover art

Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond

Denis Johnson

(Harper Collins)

From modern-day hippies, to war-weary Africans, to a Kabul under Taliban rule, to Christian biker rallies, Denis Johnson offers glimpses of how the other half lives in a collection of essays, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond.

Johnson’s treks through Africa — “The Land of Oz”; the place “where God came to learn to wait” — are by far the most gripping descriptions of a continent in which brutal civil wars, famine and longstanding strife have decimated cultures. Liberia, the nation the world forgot, is in shambles, as Charles Taylor and his archenemy Prince Johnson vie for control while engaging in a mass killing spree: “Anybody who didn’t speak the right dialect, anybody who looked too prosperous or well fed was shot, beheaded, or set on fire with fuel oil.” Meanwhile, women roam the streets, seeking desperate help for their dying infants. Our reporter finds himself battling nonexistent rules and perpetual mayhem and sorrow, from which he wishes to escape.

Johnson offers a similar snapshot of Somalia, where “chaht” (an herbal drug) still flourishes despite the ruination of practically everything else. Traveling with a loyalist of Gen. Mohammed Farah Adidid, who is on his way to Mogadishu to bid good riddance to the U.N. troops, Johnson goes along for the ride, and agrees to being referred to as “Mike” the German (since Somalis respect Germans and are cautious of Americans). Johnson is escorted around the war-torn country by a group of Kalishnikov-toting, high-on-chaht rebels, in a state of disbelief as to how given the bombings, plagues, and other ills, Somilia continues to exist. He becomes aware that he is now in “the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God . . .” Often, as with Africa, there are no answers, only questions.

As ever, the U.S. hovers in the background — in some occasions it is embodied in Johnson, who serves as a sort of accidental representative of his nation. As the old joke goes, the U.S. is like the guy at the party who offers everybody free coke, and still nobody likes him. In Johnson’s overseas escapades, the attitude toward the States is mixed: admiration and imitation (which is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery), coupled with either sadness or resentment about the United State’s lack of attention, or on the flip side, its direct interference.

Johnson’s poetic prose (evidence of his extensive fiction and poetry talents) captures the reader right from the start. His essays are cleverly intertwined with cold hard facts, but the underlying tone is very much that of a gifted storyteller who happens to have stumbled into this mad, mad world, and would like to share a few of his observations in a fireside chat.

In the all too brief chapter on Afghanistan, he describes in spine-chilling detail, the arrival of the Taliban (who are, as we know, no longer—Johnson was in Afghanistan when the Taliban were attaining power) as they take over Kabul, and enforce Islamic codes of conduct by “smash[ing] TVs and VCRs . . . [and] banning music and intimidating the intellectuals. . . .” Allah’s word was apparently all they needed, or so they thought. As Johnson writes, the Afghans believe that “the two most important aspects of living are hospitality and revenge.”

Johnson’s world is full of warriors and malcontents who are simply striving to remain alive or be taken seriously. They listen to a different drummer, and the beat is often a little too loud and jarring for the rest of the world, that is dumbfounded that there is a strange sense of order to all the chaos.

In the States, Johnson stumbles onto a hippie gathering where thousands of Hippies of all ages have gathered to immerse themselves in a mass love-in and signs around the camp grounds (where reefer and drugs flows freely) declare: “We love the alcoholic, but not alcohol.” Johnson indulges in ‘shrooms, and wonders whether a psychedelic trip is going to help him spiritually. “And the answer is yes; I believe such is possible; thanks. . . .” But then again, Johnson is an admitted former hippie with occasional relapses.

Other chapters describe a moving Christian bikers rally, where thousands of Harley-riding toughies (many of whom are former convicts who have found Christ) gather to bond, Christian-style. A search for gold takes him and his wife to the great wilderness of Alaska, and a touching, exceptionally interesting essay on the fate of Eric Rudolph, fugitive at large, who is rumored to be hiding in the caves of Natahala National Forest, leads us to almost (but not quite) champion Rudolph’s cause.

Johnson has earned acclaim for his fiction and poetry for years. He ranks as one of the most respected American writers who have successfully carved a niche for themselves, not only for their knack of delicately weaving words together, but for compassionately championing all those underdogs upon whom the ‘Joneses’ constantly frown.

Seek, though a journalistic effort, still bears Johnson’s distinguishable brand. More important, if you are haunted (as most Johnson fans are) by the underdogs introduced in his fiction, the characters in Seek are for real. Johnson skips the light fandango, and invites stragglers along for the bumpy ride.

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