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On Native Ground | The Nation

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On Native Ground

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I've long considered E.L. Doctorow the most American of contemporary writers--in a particularly classic sense. To look back over his career is to see a psychic map of our obsessions, from the legends of the Old West to the betrayals of the cold war to the warp and woof of US history itself. In The Book of Daniel, the adult son of a couple very much like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wrestles with the failed promises of American democracy, the way freedom often yields to hysteria. In Billy Bathgate, meanwhile, a Depression-era Bronx street urchin finds salvation through his association with the gangster Dutch Schultz, who offers him a wider outlook on the world. What's astonishing is not just Doctorow's insistence on a larger mythos but his ability to write continually from outside his experience. It's an aesthetic that would be compelling in any era, yet seems especially so at the present, when we define ourselves in pieces, and the ideal of American identity has been reduced to a cliché.

About the Author

David L. Ulin
David L. Ulin is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and...

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Let's begin with a Denis Johnson moment. One Saturday, in Los Angeles, I venture out to buy a newspaper; when I get home, I discover, wedged between its C and D sections, a grainy flier offering spiritual aid. The flier is signed by a guy named Steve, who's a member of something called the Motorcycle Church of Christ, and right there on the paper is his phone number, inscribed neatly in ballpoint pen. Normally, I'd just throw it in the garbage without thinking about it; if I need help, I won't be looking to a flier in the newspaper, and anyway, the Motorcycle Church of Christ? But this day, I'm feeling buffeted, aswirl in signs and incantations, indications that there's something bigger going on. On my walk to the newsstand, I'd seen a young girl wearing an athletic department T-shirt, only instead of "Property of USC" or "Property of L.A. Dodgers," it screamed out "Property of God." Weirder, though--chilling, even--is this: When I left the house, I was in the midst of reading Johnson's essay "Bikers for Jesus," which recounts a trip he made to Newark, Texas, for the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally, a three-day evangelical revival featuring, among other born-again bikers, the selfsame Motorcycle Church of Christ.

Were I living in a different universe, I might call this a coincidence, the kind of synchronicity that arises when you have something on your mind. But in Denis Johnson's universe there is no such thing as coincidence, only hints, clues, patterns of connection that let us see the world in a new light. His novel Already Dead is nothing less than a metaphysical passion play, in which life and death, soul and substance, come together like the threads of an elaborate tapestry, until we're no longer sure where reality and illusion begin or end. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, meanwhile, posits God as the ultimate conspirator, less a deity than a puppetmaster whose intentions are never clear. What's extraordinary about this vision is that for all its spiritual uncertainty, it offers moments--flashes, really--of revelation, although it's up to us to decipher what those mean. Nowhere is this more deftly rendered than in Johnson's story cycle Jesus' Son, where a hopeless drifter, junkie and occasional criminal navigates a middle road between transcendence and despair. "What a pair of lungs!" he crows in "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," describing a woman who has just learned that her husband is dead. "She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere." Such lines can't help but rewire our expectations, not only because of Johnson's willingness to sink down deep into the darkness but because, even in the throes of loss and degradation, it is often wonder that he finds.

Johnson's first book of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, stakes out a similarly elusive territory, featuring eleven pieces that move fluidly, sometimes within the span of a single sentence, from memoir to meditation to reportage. Much of this material first appeared in mass-market publications--Esquire, Harper's--but to call Seek a collection of magazine work would be to miss the point. Rather, in much the same way as Johnson's fiction, the accounts here mean to get beneath the surface of their circumstances, to root out the ambiguities, the question marks, the inexplicable juxtapositions--those moments when, without warning, everything is cast in doubt. Don't get me wrong; it's not a metaphorical world that Seek reports on: From the shattered, warred-upon landscapes of Afghanistan and Liberia to the neo-hippie enclave of the Rainbow Gathering, these are actual places full of actual people, living actual lives. But if there are no ghosts wandering California's North Coast, no junkies having mystical visions in the backs of family cars, as in Johnson's fiction, Seek evokes an equivalent sense of rawness, the idea that, at any instant, we may step through the looking glass into a domain unknown. "Another night under a strange sky in a different realm," Johnson writes in a dispatch from Somalia.

I listen to the reports on the shortwave of bombings, attacks, plagues, even witch-burnings (seventy elderly women burned in South Africa in the last ten months) and I feel I'm living in a world where such things are all there is...I've got a pocket New Testament, but I can't read much of it--because I'm living in the Bible's world right now, the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too.

The question, of course, is how we reconcile this--the desperate hope and the deliverance, the miracles and the attacks and plagues. For Johnson, the answer is a kind of studied incredulity, which allows him to approach most situations with eyes wide open and no preconceptions, other than those he needs in order to survive. In "Three Deserts," he visits a religious sect called the Children of the Light at their fertile compound in the Arizona desert, where they live "as virgins and eunuchs in the Reign of Heaven...they do not expect to die." Such a setup is ripe for skepticism, but Johnson goes the other direction, writing about the group's miraculous discovery of a freshwater lake 200 feet underground as if it could be luck or blessing, or a little bit of both. It's not that he suspends judgment exactly, just that judgment isn't what he's after. Rather, his purpose is to leave the question open and allow us to decide for ourselves. The closest he gets to any real conclusions comes in "Hippies," when, reflecting on the Rainbow Gathering, he notes that "here in this bunch of 10,000 to 50,000 people somehow unable to count themselves I see my generation epitomized: a Peter Pan generation nannied by matronly Wendys like Bill and Hillary Clinton, our politics a confusion of Red and Green beneath the black flag of Anarchy; cross-eyed and well-meaning, self-righteous, self-satisfied; close-minded, hypocritical, intolerant--Loving you!--Sieg Heil!" Lest it appear he's exempting himself, though, Johnson soon reveals his complicity by ripping off an old friend in a mushroom deal. "Back at my tent," he admits, "I dig out my canteen and prepare to split the stuff, whatever it is, with Joey while he finds his own canteen so we can wash it down quick. And here is why I can't permit myself even to try and co-exist with these substances: I said I'd split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I'll never stop being a junkie."

The reason all this works is Johnson's honesty, which carries a sense of relentlessness about it. His "Hippies" riff is just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the book, he revels in the idea of being caught off-guard. That's a difficult trick to pull off, especially with nonfiction, where, in the thirty-odd years since Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, and other New Journalists first sought to efface it, the line between reportorial observer and participant has come to appear nonexistent at times. Yet Johnson gets away with it because, for the most part, his personality remains secondary to what he's seeing, the often fragmentary substance of the world. In several pieces, he goes so far as to write about himself in the third person, constructing a series of personas not unlike the muddled men who motivate his fiction, and even at his most overtly personal--"Down Hard Six Times," about his honeymoon panning for gold in Alaska, or "Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells," a reminiscence of his Boy Scout initiation, circa 1962--he maintains a reserve, a filtered quality, framing his experiences through some larger issue (self-sufficiency, say, or weakness) that goes beyond self-reflection or memoir.

On the surface this might seem to distance us from the subject, yet paradoxically it draws us closer by letting us engage with the material on our own. In "The Small Boys' Unit," for instance, which recounts a 1992 trip to Liberia to interview military strongman Charles Taylor, Johnson meanders along, overwhelmed by African inefficiency, until the very notion of the interview starts to seem beside the point. He gets the runaround, he may or may not be arrested, he feels ineffectual in the face of poverty and civil war. What this does is lull us into an equivalent state of torpor, so that when Johnson finally opens up, it's unexpected and profound. "My parents raised me to love all the earth's peoples," he writes in one of Seek's most ruthlessly self-lacerating passages. "Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming Niggers! Niggers! Niggers! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me."

It's unsettling to read something like that--unsettling, hell, it's disturbing in the extreme. But it's also deeply meaningful, a moment that lingers, resonates. Once you get over the initial shock, you realize that Johnson's throwing down a gauntlet, not about race so much as about assumption, challenging us to rethink all the things we take for granted, to consider them from another point of view. In many ways, that's the defining ethos of the collection, and if any one piece reflects this, it's "The Militia in Me," a response to the Oklahoma City bombing, originally published in Esquire in the summer of 1995. Here Johnson humanizes those in the militia movement by acknowledging his sympathy--not for their methods or their ideology but for their discontent. "This is a free country," he tells us. "I just want to be left alone." Then, he describes the ways our rights have been eroded, from the FBI's standoff with survivalist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to Johnson's own confrontation with an INS officer sixty miles north of the Texas-Mexico border:

"Can we have a look in your vehicle?" "What if I said no?" "Then we'd bring the dog over and he'd tell us we'd better search the vehicle." "You mean he'd give you probable cause for a search?" "Just your refusal to let us search," the officer says, "would be probable cause."

This is dangerous work, daring work, not least because it asks us to think rationally about an issue so thickly layered with emotion there's very little room for common ground. "I believe the State should be resisted wherever it encroaches," Johnson argues. "But the bombers of that building will demonstrate for us something we don't want demonstrated: There's no trick to starting a revolution. Simply open fire on the State; the State will oblige by firing back. What's harder is to win a revolution, and the only victory worthy of the name will be a peaceable one."

What's most compelling about "The Militia in Me" is the sense we get that Johnson is walking an intellectual and emotional tightrope, suspended between polarities of belief. "I want to float above the fray," he confesses, "want to be like Walt Whitman, 'both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.' But when the violence starts, I'm not aloof. I'm in the middle, pulled both ways." Although in a different essay Johnson's confusion might be a liability, here it assures us that he's on to something--albeit something with a quicksilver quality. There's considerable power, after all, in watching a writer wrestle with his material as it rearranges his mind and ours; it's the kind of power that makes you trust him. Even down to its structure, Seek operates like such a line of inquiry, each installment building on the last. It's only fitting that "The Militia in Me" occupies the exact middle of the collection, where it can function as a fulcrum, just as it's appropriate that the other pieces form an ensemble in which ideas, references, even bits of narrative echo back and forth until some subtle harmonies arise. How are we to see the Rainbow Gathering and the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally if not as parallel events, a pair of traveling tent shows meant to offer solace in a universe of faith and terror? And how should we read the militia movement's don't-tread-on-me rhetoric and Johnson's desire for solitude except as the public and private faces of a single impulse, the need to preserve some space, some identity, against a society gone out of control?

If any resolution can be drawn from this, it's an elliptical one, although that, too, seems fitting in the end. What Johnson is saying is that every one of us, regardless of allegiance or background, is equally lost, equally longing, equally hungry for meaning in our lives. Were this an earlier age, we might look to church or state or family for connection; but we live in a time when those systems have long since failed us, leaving us adrift. Given such a world, it probably makes less difference what answers we come up with than which questions we choose to raise in the first place. It's tempting to regard this as a form of nihilism, and there's some nihilism in it, to be sure. But Johnson's peculiar, even visionary, genius is how he turns that around on us, until we have no choice but to reassess our terms. Is it nihilism to imagine abortion-clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph's retreat to the caves of North Carolina as a symbolic return to the womb? Or to acknowledge, as Johnson does more than once here, his sense of failure in the face of circumstance, his feelings of being overwhelmed? No, for Johnson, this is all simply part of the picture, which comprises equal parts light and darkness, heaven and hell. His is a universe where patterns manifest themselves in the most unlikely places. Even a flier from the Motorcycle Church of Christ.

For Doctorow, however, our divisions mask a deeper quality of connection, a vision of America as both real and metaphorical, a place where we invent ourselves as we go along. Even when he takes on the tropes of his Jewish immigrant heritage--as in World's Fair, his most autobiographical novel, or parts of The Book of Daniel--he always ties this material to some idea of social movement larger than himself. In that regard, Doctorow is less the spiritual descendant of, say, Henry Roth or Saul Bellow than a writer like John Dos Passos, since for him the personal story is but a single thread in a more encompassing narrative, and the most important elements are those that bind us rather than set us apart.

Unlike Dos Passos, Doctorow hasn't become a reactionary as he's grown older; if anything, he's opened up his point of view. His last novel, City of God, operates like an exploding universe; composed in fragments, it tells the story of a disaffected Episcopal priest who falls in love with a Reconstructionist rabbi, although at heart it's about spiritual crisis, about what happens when we recognize that God is unresponsive, or at least beyond our comprehension, inaccessible to any meaningful extent. This is very much an American dilemma, and Doctorow's achievement is to infuse the book with a taste of good old-fashioned transcendentalism, albeit transposed to a less contemplative age. In many ways, City of God's cacophony of voices--there are literally dozens of speakers, from Wittgenstein and Einstein to more modern figures--is a vivid reminder of our social dissonance, all our endlessly competing narratives. How, the novel wonders, are we to find meaning when meaning is entirely relative, on both the individual and the cosmic plain? Such a question, of course, can drive you crazy, can lead to fundamentalism or despair. Yet even at his most abstract, Doctorow remains a humanist, which means that, for him, what's important is the asking--or, more accurately, the way we deal with these uncertainties. Whether or not we occupy a godless universe, we must find a passage, an angle of connection, a way to root ourselves. Read like this, the struggle Doctorow evokes here mirrors that of all his characters, who are seeking a foothold, a strategy for understanding, even as they recognize (as City of God makes uncomfortably explicit) that understanding will not save them in the end.

Doctorow's new book, Sweet Land Stories, also treads the fine line between despair and fundamentalism, although in a more direct manner than City of God. What's at stake, in other words, is not the cosmos but something considerably narrower: a handful of individual souls. Featuring five longish pieces of short fiction, Sweet Land Stories is, in many ways, a volume of shards, a collection of marginal lives. The characters it portrays, essentially one to a story, are castoffs, abandoned by history, buffeted by circumstance. There's Lester, a loosely employed drifter whose girlfriend, Karen, kidnaps an infant from a local hospital, then claims it as her own. Or Jolene, liberated from foster care by a teenage marriage, only to end up with a succession of unscrupulous men. These are Americans, to be sure; in fact, Sweet Land Stories is Doctorow's most overtly American work since Billy Bathgate, a state reflected by its title, which may or may not be intended as irony. Either way, the America we discover here is an America of diminished expectations, in which both myth and meaning have deserted us, and we are left with nowhere to turn. That idea is woven into the very nature of the collection, with its implication that none of these people are necessary enough to support an entire novel of their own. Rather, with Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow shifts his focus inward, giving us a glimpse of America on the fringes, of what happens when it all goes wrong.

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