cover image Already Dead: A California Gothic

Already Dead: A California Gothic

Denis Johnson. HarperCollins Publishers, $25 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-06-018737-8

Pop-mystical mumbo-jumbo freely and funnily coexists with the classics of Western philosophy in this ruminative, atmospheric tale of severed connections, lost souls, witches, demons, drugs and murder in Mendocino County, Calif. Nelson Fairchild Jr., marijuana cultivator and scion of a local timber fortune, has big problems: in a move to prevent Fairchild's imminent divorce, his father is threatening to disinherit him and leave the money to his estranged wife; a dangerous cocaine dealer wants restitution for a deal gone sour; and Fairchild's even more dangerous partner, Clarence, refuses to let him touch the capital of their current investment, a field full of marijuana. Fairchild himself is growing increasingly paranoid, drinking too many margaritas, sleeping with an unstable woman who cares little for him and generally getting sloppy. When he saves Nietzschean loner Carl Van Ness from a suicide attempt, the two hatch a plan to solve all of Fairchild's problems in one deadly swoop. But Van Ness may be the most dangerous of these West Coast wastrels: as Fairchild soon discovers, his misery is only beginning. With a mixture of lyricism and satire, Johnson (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, etc.) brings to life a vivid world where even the lowlife hired killer is a part-time poet. Writing mostly in the third person, but occasionally in Fairchild's own desultory voice, he renders memorable characters, each with his own unique--usually part mad, part inspired--set of beliefs, each a refugee from the center, each drawn, as if for that reason, to Northern California's ancient ""hills above them massed with redwoods and the waves beating themselves to pieces in the mist below."" (Aug.)