Part political disquisition, part travel journal, part self-exploration, Seek is a collection of essays and articles in which Denis Johnson essentially takes on the world.And not an obliging, easygoing world either; but rather one in which horror and beauty exist in such proximity that they might well be interchangeable. Where violence and poverty and moral transgression go unchecked, even unnoticed. A world of such wild, rocketing energy that, grasping it, anything at all is possible.
Whether traveling through war-ravaged Liberia, mingling with the crowds at a Christian Biker rally, exploring his own authority issues through the lens of this nation's militia groups, or attempting to unearth his inner resources while mining for gold in the wilds of Alaska, Johnson writes with a mixture of humility and humorous candor that is everywhere present.
With the breathtaking and often haunting lyricism for which his work is renowned, Johnson considers in these pieces our need for transcendence. And, as readers of his previous work know, Johnson's path to consecration frequently requires a limning of the darkest abyss. If the path to knowledge lies in experience, Seek is a fascinating record of Johnson's profoundly moving pilgrimage.
As a fiction writer and poet, Johnson is known for his surreal portraits of the dispossessed lurking at the fringes of American life: the drifters, the jobless, the junkies and midnight DJ's. In this collection of 11 essays, which brings together pieces written over a 20-year period, he prefers to look at how those same individuals band together to form a new, often threatening, identity. His America is peopled with Christian Bikers in Texas, Alaskan frontiersmen, hippies both young and old, and right-wing militia members, all striving to create a life apart from the values associated with the mainstream middle-class. In addition to the essays on America, Johnson expands his canvas to take in the revolutions wrought by the dispossessed of the third world, in such places as Liberia, Afghanistan and Somalia. He finds true believers at every crossroad, whether it's in God, government, guns or all three, and manages to assess the quality of their conviction by travelling among them. Though Johnson is always clearly present as a narrator, he often only refers to himself in the third person or as a separate character altogether. This unusual narrative style infuses many of the essays with an askew, out-of-body point of view, which, while taxing to his credibility as a reporter, adds sincerity to his plight as a human. As a journalist, Johnson searches for something beyond headlines and, at least in this collection, that makes for an intriguing and insightful investigation.
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Travel writing at it's finest
Denis Johnson writes with a unique voice. His novels, as one reviewer so elegantly wrote, are "like reading Graham Greene on LSD". His characters are so extreme, his word crafting impeccable.
Seek brings Johnson's images of the extreme, to real life extreme places such as Liberia (with a mind blowing encounter with Charles Taylor) and a visit with Christian bikers.
I have given this Jewell of a book so several friends and they all agree that Johnson is a writer of the first tier and that "Seek" is one of the finest travel dialogues they've ever read.