Writer Denis Johnson has died.
He was forever annoyed that reporters overwhelmingly wanted to ask him about Jesus’ Son, his brief, perfect 1992 volume of connected stories. It was a strange thing to be bothered by. Who wouldn’t want to repeatedly lay claim to such greatness?
Additionally, Johnson authored Angels, a bruising, heartbreaking 1983 novel about a single mom toting her at-risk family through the underbelly of America. It does not have the lightness of tone that JS has. Not at all. It leaves a bruise. The writer also turned out some fine journalism. The following re-post is about one such offering.
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There will always be some who retreat from the culture, go off by themselves or in pairs or groups. They’ll disappear into their own heads, create their own reality. For most it’s benign, but not for all. The deeper they retreat, the harder it will be to reemerge. There are those who don’t even want to live parallel to the larger society and come to believe they can end it. They sometimes explode back into their former world, committing acts of domestic terrorism.
Such groups were addressed by Johnson in the chilling reportage “The Militia in Me,” which appears in his 2001 non-fiction collection, Seek. The violence of Ruby Ridge and Waco and the horrific Oklahoma City bombing had shocked the nation into realizing the terror within, so Johnson traveled the U.S. and Canada to find out how and why militias had come to be. The writer, paranoid about both the government and the anti-government movement in 1990s America, couldn’t have predicted at the time the mainstreaming of conspiracists like Alex Jones and his ilk. He was fearful of attacks from the margins, unaware that the sideshow would soon take its place in the center ring.
Three brief excerpts from the article.
The people I talked with seemed to imply that the greatest threat to liberty came from a conspiracy, or several overlapping conspiracies, well known to everybody but me. As a framework for thought, this has its advantages. It’s quicker to call a thing a crime and ask Who did it? than to call it a failure and set about answering the question What happened?
I’m one among many, part of a disparate–sometimes better spelled “desperate”–people, self-centered, shortsighted, stubborn, sentimental, richer than anybody’s ever been, trying to get along in the most cataclysmic century in human history. Many of us are troubled that somewhere, somehow, the system meant to keep us free has experienced a failure. A few believe that someone has committed the crime of sabotaging everything.
Failures need correction. Crimes cry out for punishment. Some ask: How do we fix it? Others: Who do we kill?
They told me they made furniture out of antlers and drove around anywhere and everywhere, selling it. For the past month I’d been reading about the old days, missing them as if I had lived in them, and I said, “You sound like free Americans.”
“No,” the smaller man said and thereafter did all the talking, while the other, the blond driver changed my tire. “No American is free today.”
“Okay, I guess you’re right, but what do we do about that?”
“We fight till we are,” he said. “Till we’re free or we’re dead, one or the other.”
“Who’s going to do the fighting?”
“A whole lot of men. More than you’d imagine. We’ll fight till we’re dead or we’re free.”•