Charting an American fringe populated with drug addicts, killers, members of obscure Christian sects, and muck-mouthed conspiracy mongers, Denis Johnson has developed a keen eye for the dropout as emotional wreck. True enough, some of his creations have taken up permanent residence in the realm of paranoia and the paranormal, the sort of people for whom brain control via satellite dish is a quotidian concern. But for all his underbelly-gazing and psychotic underpinnings, Johnson’s best characters to date have had one foot planted in a slippery reality. They’re anxious, shifty guys with spotty work records and not much good sense, like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man‘s Leonard English, who flees a career as a Kansas medical-supplies salesman to become a bumbling PI in Provincetown, where he falls for a lesbian and becomes convinced that a local archbishop is leading a militia-like crime ring. Johnson doesn’t spend much time exploring the sources of these characters’ neuroses (English is recovering from a horrifying job, a suicide attempt, and conflicts with his Catholicism). Rather, he takes them as a given, emphasizing the downhill race into nervous breakdown, not its antecedents.
Johnson’s new, compact novel, The Name of the World, signals a jaunt into new terrain, not least because its narrator has a very specific reason to act crazy—and leads an all-too-tame life. This doesn’t mean that Name entirely boils off the weirdness of his previous work. The opening’s tone is measured and quiet, but as the story progresses, Johnson’s inimitable sound-bites-from-the-insane style burns through the fissures of an initially stoic facade.
Almost four years ago, Michael Reed’s daughter, Elsie, and wife, Anne, died in a car accident. In losing his daughter, Reed claims, “I’d lost all of us,” and when Name begins, he still hasn’t found himself. As an uninspired history professor in the Midwest, he ekes out an emotionally dormant, repetitive existence of oppressive faculty dinners and daily ruts as he waits for his adjunct position to dry up. Johnson spends a good deal of time helping us feel Reed’s fading past and empty present. A former speechwriter for a Democratic senator, he no longer votes, and judging from his narrative, doesn’t speak much either, except for imaginary conversations he conducts with the local art museum’s rent-a-cop, with whom he “discusses” “the indiscernible points, the little dimes, where fate takes its sharpest turns.”
No stranger to the theme of dependency, Johnson here portrays a different sort of addiction, not so much to lost loved ones as to going through the motions of grief. Staring at ice-skaters circling the campus rink, the professor thinks of his own methodical orbit around a core of absence:
As I followed my own round over and over I wandered farther and farther from its core, my course less and less beholden to the central shape. For a long time now I’d really had little to do with the source of my grief. I was in fact quite free of it. Yet my devotion remained.
At times Johnson’s prose can feel a bit chilly and distant, caught in a series of burdensome metaphors (in one scene, Reed runs into a head-trauma victim bearing an imaginary torch). But he also shows a deep feeling for the banality of mourning’s aftermath and, as time goes on, produces a tense, damp-fuse portrait of a life smothered by routine. Reed might be devastated, but he struggles with the acute boredom of his sadness as much as anything else. He repeatedly gives the sense that he has rationalized his paralysis to the point that he can’t imagine anything outside of it, and needs something unpredictable to burst his bubble.
The surprise arrives in the form of college student/stripper/performance artist/insouciant caterer Flower Cannon, who becomes for Reed an odd combination of sexual conquest and doppelgänger for his dead daughter. This rings somewhat false—Flower is 26, and Elsie died just shy of five—but the incongruity seems part of the point. Flower becomes not only Reed’s fixation, but an almost mystical presence signaling an exit out of his mundane life, suddenly appearing every time he acts, uncharacteristically, on a “crazy impulse.” Reed searches for a professor he might date, and walks into one of Flower’s comically described performance pieces. He hops a bus to an Indian-run casino, spots Flower as she accepts an award for best stripper, and gets punched in the face by an ex-con he’s just befriended. After years of being carless, he acquires a BMW from a friend, and uses it to follow Flower to what appears to be a Mennonite service, which inspires him to denounce God. Afterward he drives Flower back to her studio in an abandoned schoolhouse for the novel’s most alarming scene.
This last encounter is erotically charged, and at first it seems like Johnson has set up a pat formula to bring on the healing, in which desire for the living trumps love for the dead. What he delivers is something entirely different. It turns out that Flower thinks of the professor as a double too: When she was four, a man who looked like Reed kidnapped her from her backyard, took her to what she calls a gingerbread house, and provided her with her name. Flower’s story—a hodgepodge of alien-abduction narrative, fairy tale, and “Young Goodman Brown”—shows Johnson at his most haunting, in part because it’s so cryptic. While her tale never divulges any specific trauma, it’s certainly ominous, full of ghosts, submerged emotions, and blind spots that plunge Reed, and the reader, into unknown fear and confusion: “What connected these words from Flower’s lips to the accident that killed my family? From them I understood that I could no longer bear my daughter’s death. It was going to break me. And I would have to let it.”
“Am I making sense in this account?” Reed asks the reader late in the novel. Not entirely, but the professor’s dilemma throughout is his relentless clinging to sense and acting too much like an adult. Johnson frees him by demolishing meaning in the end as well as he evokes it at the beginning. Reed’s strange meeting with Flower clearly moves him to a hilariously childish departure from the college town, long-suppressed tears, and eventually a job signaling a return to the world. It’s a happy, somewhat tacked-on ending. But if Name‘s conclusion doesn’t quite hold together, this doesn’t diminish Johnson’s brilliance as a writer—or his point that mourning can become a dull habit, that understanding it too well might only deepen the rut. Grief, The Name of the World powerfully suggests, is a messy thing, requiring a messy exit.