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Civilization and Its Malcontents

Adam Johnson Explores the New Vocabulary of Violence


Author:Adam Johnson
Publisher:Viking Press

By Rupert Wondolowski | Posted 5/15/2002

The characters in Emporium, Adam Johnson's first book of stories, have a "newer, more optimistic vocabulary for violence." This is what Lt. Kim tells Tim, the teen police sniper, he will achieve through positive visualization during his kills in the lead story "Teen Sniper."

Tim and most of the other absurd, almost nightmare humans that people Johnson's collection could be hard-partying nephews of Crash author J.G. Ballard's more claustrophobic visions of the human race. Or, considering that most of these stories are dark satires, maybe more like distant cousins of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club members. They've gone so far past the apocalypse that in "Trauma Plate" nostalgia is reserved for mom-and-pop bulletproof-vest rental shops competing with the Body Armor Emporium down the road.

Like Ballard and Palahniuk, Johnson attempts to portray the new mythologies seeping up from the concrete in these heady days of unrestrained violence and capitalism. What is the new iconography that speaks to the deep part of our souls, souls that might not ever wander into forests until teen years but watch bloody dismemberment almost daily, and whose group communions most often take place at the "emporium," aka the mall?

But while Ballard's characters are more likely to be found crouching behind a burnt-out fuselage cradling a rifle and hallucinating, Johnson's are still fairly grounded in a world most of us would recognize, albeit secondhand. Take, for example, "The Jughead of Berlin," his tale about a girl taking a last joy ride with her dad before the feds raids their home for illegal gambling equipment. To complicate matters, the girl is in love with an ROTC boy who will be along on the raid. Or "The History of Cancer," the story of the preteen narrator and his buddy Ralph, who spend their days sorting the colored tiles that Ralph's dad pilfers from work. The first time the narrator meets Ralph's mom "she hooked a thumb behind the elastic band of her velour shorts and pulled them down to the stubble of her pubic hair so she could show me her still-fresh hysterectomy scar. This was to demonstrate why I was to stay quiet in her house, make my own sandwiches, and not slam that damn ball against the carport."

That said, Johnson displays the Ballard-like tendency to find just as much poetry in carnage and technology as in nature. Consider these lines from an ex-cop in "Your Own Backyard": "On Traffic [duty], you'll see pelvic wings unfold against steering columns. There'll be breast plates you can see light through, dentures imbedded in dashboards." "Your Own Backyard" is the most chilling of the stories: Its protagonist, an ex-cop who now culls animals for a zoo, seems to have already lost his 5-year-old son to cold-blooded sociopathy. When a wolf (a lot of wolves, rifles, and planes appear in these stories) sprays the son, you're not sure if the wolf is accepting the son as one of its own or putting him in his place.

The dad in "Your Own Backyard" is one of about a half-dozen ineffectual pater familias that populate these pages. Along with all the restrained-wolf imagery and technology gone haywire, there is a strong undercurrent of hairy male juju. The teen in "The Cliff Gods of Acapulco" learns about African gods that take human form and sleep with women, then change back, leaving a son who is "a semigod, with small powers he doesn't understand, and like his father, he's a roamer, with one wing in heaven, one foot on earth, doomed to wander toward every distant mud city that appears golden in his half-divine sight." "His real father might be a bird or a storm, sea-beast or lion," another character muses, "so this typical young man . . . must learn to find his fathers where he can."

It is in the stories where Johnson balances the human comedy against the crush of technology, however, that his voice is most his own, as in "Teen Sniper," the collection's gem. The title character is a prodigy at sniping--"won the Disney Classic at age eleven." His best friend is a bomb-sniffing robot for whose birthday the sniper buys a programming update--"Negotiator 5.0, with the latest Black English Converters--because ROMS wants to express himself." The one problem the talented teen has is that he can't help having empathy for his marks.

And human empathy offers a note of hope in the collection's final story. The young protagonist of "The Eighth Sea," who has been sentenced to "Adult Redirection" meetings after a drunk-and-disorderly arrest, reports to a job site to repair a backyard wall smashed by a horrific car accident. Seeing groceries and condoms scattered in the detritus, he can't help but imagine the small world ended by this unforeseen event. Perhaps simple human concern is one of the few constants in a world of ever-mutating dystopia; as long as people can look outside themselves and consider the plight of others, there is a chance of triggers not pulled, bombs not launched, and plagues not spread.

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