A California Gothic
By Denis Johnson
435 pages, $25
Three Short Novels
By Philip Caputo
353 pages, $25
In California noir, there's Los Angeles and San Francisco. You can't do California noir in Palo Alto or Sonoma or San Diego. San Diego is too bright and happy a place. Can you do California noir in the redwood forests of northern California? Thomas Pynchon gave it a try in "Vineland" (1990), and here is Denis Johnson in "Already Dead" in Humboldt County, near the Mattole River.
The crime angle in northern coastal California noir is dope. The babes are bitter New Age blonds. Cynical narcs prowl. Stoned psycho killers prowl. There are crops to guard and to lose. In "Vineland," Pynchon's guy is Zoyd Wheeler. In "Already Dead," Johnson has several: Van Ness, Fairchild, Navarro. Fairchild wants his wife murdered. He sells family-owned redwood to timber interests.
It might be that noir still can't find its ground in northern coastal California. Wrong atmospherics. A fellow says in "Already Dead": "I deeply enjoy spending time here alone, looking out over the Northern California morning, drinking Northern California zinfandel and blowing on a Northern California reefer." This is how ordinary life is lived in the Humboldt County heartland, and Johnson has to work hard concocting bad guys and wicked plots to get around it. There is in fact no evil in northern coastal California, just lots of latte, handmade goods, trees, utopian idealists and salmon runs. That is the region's big literary problem.
Johnson calls his novel California gothic. Well, I suppose it is, sort of, whatever California gothic is. The action line is too cluttered. The characters are not finally compelling in any memorable way. What happens in the novel has almost nothing to do with the site. Fairchild plunges finally into the coastal forest, but the forest is mainly just a set, one that allows Johnson to do gorgeous writing.
"Sitting in the wet sand he apprenticed himself to the sea's infinite pitiable preoccupation with the shoreline."
Seals are "scrambling over the rocks with zoologic obsessiveness." Offshore seals are "balnealing with their snouts up like French intellectuals."
Richard Brautigan did a different northern coastal California in his fiction of the late 1960s. I think specifically of "In Watermelon Sugar" (1968). Its pastoral bliss, sweetness of dry air, sweetness of society is the subject in northern coastal California, not the dark doings of noir. Ethical, sensible, humane Pauline is the prime mover of "Watermelon Sugar," the spirit of the place. What wild despair there is in this sweet pastoral is an exact foretelling of Brautigan's suicide.
Humboldt/Mattole is the last redoubt of the counterculture. It is where Charles Manson will go once he gets his parole. Pynchon and Johnson depict it as a sad, corrupted place occupied by burned-out hippie cases. Johnson puts a lot of young heavy dudes into action. The hip tough talk here is speedy and trippy. The richer, deeper and darker view is Brautigan's. Remember how "In Watermelon Sugar" begins: "In Watermelon Sugar the deeds were done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar."
Do you still have your copy of "Please Plant This Book," the seeds in their packets? Hang onto it. Look to it.
Philip Caputo's "Exiles: Three Short Novels" is surprisingly pulpy. The first novel is a romance, Italian guy, WASPy girl. The second is a South Seas yarn done in painful dialect. The third is an exotic war story with the characters and story line of pulp adventure narration. Caputo's writing is about the glamour and romance of exile: mysterious encounters on trains, distant exotic places, personal relations with tribal persons.
Take no other expectation into the final Vietnam novel, "In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant." An American platoon goes hunting a Moby Dick tiger in the Vietnamese forest. There's a bow and arrow person here, Han, doing his Queequeg/Tonto duty and saying things like: "Tiger knows we are tracking, knows we have guns, and keeps walking walking."
Vietnam writing never got out from under Melville and Conrad, Hemingway and Faulkner. There were early on some excellent women writers -- Gloria Emerson, Frances FitzGerald -- who seemed to write from other positional places, but they did not go on to have careers in Vietnam writing.