Road to Nowhere

The cover of Adam Johnson’s much talked-about and striking debut collection of short stories, Emporium, is a complicated visual joke. An unfinished stretch of L.A. freeway rises aggressively into the blue sky over an eerily placid bedroom community. If the picture’s weirdly moving, it’s because the aspirational thrust of the incomplete ramp contrasts so starkly against the dead quality of the house-scape. Where will the bustling freeway take people if not to more communities, more silences?

That tart wistfulness is what makes Emporium so distinctive. Johnson sees his frightened but hopeful characters – the sex-starved housewives, the failed small-time businessmen, the swim-team goddesses, the depressed cops turned security guards – not as vehicles for the author to disdain the American dream but as characters with all the urgent, foolish hopes symbolized by that freeway ramp. The resulting stories (many of which are set in a Day-Glo, slightly futuristic version of contemporary culture) are filled with feeling but retain an eccentric satiric edge.

The terrific first story in this collection, “Teen Sniper,” establishes Johnson’s distinctive blend of futuristic fantasy, cultural parody, and emotional depth. Somewhere in the San Francisco Area, at a time when terrorist attacks on Hewlett-Packard and Oracle corporate headquarters are daily occurrences, businessmen fuss with their “Porn Pilots” on the CalTrain, and lovable police robots run on “Negotiator 5.0” (“with the latest Black English converters”), a 15-year-old police sharpshooter named Tim is, not surprisingly, having trouble making emotional connections. Here as elsewhere, the vaguely sci-fi stuff serves as a stylistic Hi-Liter drawing your attention to all the gadgets and spiritual gimmicks of American materialism. Tim is told to visualize flowers while shooting people.

What makes so many of these stories resonate, however, is their tenderness – you always feel Johnson’s belief that humanity ultimately trumps consumerism and technology. Tim, for instance, finds himself falling for the daughter of a colleague, and at first he (like so many of us) takes refuge in his professional expertise; “There’s only so many ways to show affection with a rifle,” he bemusedly realizes. It’s only when he shows up fumbling on the girl’s doorstep, sans rifle, letting her see how vulnerable he is, that he gets somewhere. (The typically Johnsonian twist is that he’s been coached by a bomb-sniffing robot dog.)

Johnson likes to inject sudden anomalies into his plots – in one story, a man has his toe bitten off by a rare crocodile – as a way of poking fun at our national obsession with material comfort and security. It’s pain, after all, that reminds us that we’re alive, and in a lot of his tales, characters end up embracing pain and risk and learning “to tolerate the not knowing,” as the narrator of the crocodile story puts it. In “The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite,” a teenage boy drives a bus full of raucous cancer patients to a roadside bacchanal, only to realize that these women, with their Foley catheters and bald skulls, are “twice as alive” as he is. In “The Eighth Sea,” a young man gains the gift of empathy after a casual affair with a woman who’s married to a born-again power lifter; they meet in an “Adult Redirection” course, where both have ended up after alcohol-related convictions that neither takes seriously – until the very end.

Another futuristic story, “Trauma Plate,” which ultimately gives this collection its title, is the most explicit exploration of the tensions between safety and risk, being and living. Ruthie is the daughter of a couple whose bulletproof-vest store, located in a strip mall, is being put out of business by the “Body Armor Emporium.” They’re in a time when 4-H conventions are regularly plagued by shootings, and Ruthie’s dad won’t let her go to school without a custom-made vest, equipped with a titanium “trauma plate” over the heart. It’s typical of Johnson that at the end of his tale the frustrated girl puts on her vest and asks her boyfriend to shoot her in the heart – not so much to determine how good the protection is but to see whether what’s she’s being protected from isn’t harm but life itself.

It’s a measure of how good a satirist – and how serious a moralist – Johnson is that the one story here that overtly spills into humorous fantasy, “The Canadanaut,” is the least successful. This overly long and elaborate fable about Canada’s Cold War efforts to develop a death ray (“the greatest scientific odyssey in the history of Canadian weapons development”), and then to put a man on the moon, provides too few laughs – and no larger point. At their best, Johnson’s oh-so-slightly futuristic flights of fancy, his vaguely Blade Runner–esque visions of a cluttered, anaerobic American culture, illustrate something very real, very current: the way we must embrace the unknown, take risks, in order to give flavor and meaning to life. If the artistic risk didn’t pay off, it simply reminds you of how many did, and how richly.

One way to appreciate Johnson’s achievement is to try to slog through Rick Moody’s bloated and pretentious new memoir, The Black Veil, which also takes aim at (among many, many other things) “the civilization of the strip mall and the subdivision and the online cosmetic surgeon.” Which is to say, at Johnson’s subject, but without Johnson’s style – without, indeed, any style at all, unless you count an irritating penchant for randomly italicized phrases.

The title of this shapeless exercise in authorial self-indulgence refers both to a garment allegedly worn by a shame-obsessed ancestor and to the author’s harrowing struggles with depression – which he traces, in numbing detail, right back to the earliest and, it must be said, very moody Moodys. This genealogical account of personality could have been fascinating had the author’s bombast and grandiosity (“my roots precede the light upon the world, dwelling equally in its darkness”) been even moderately restrained. As is, the laughable efforts to connect the Moody-family mopiness to, well, everything (“the black rain of Hiroshima,” black comedy, the group Black Sabbath) are an embarrassment. Moody’s “lyricism” has always teetered on the edge of self-indulgence (as in Purple America, his 1997 assisted-suicide novel), but works like The Ice Storm and his acclaimed 2001 collection Demonology suggested that when he disciplined himself, great things could result. In the new book, he’s caved in to his worst demons – and clearly doesn’t give a damn. “Readers in search of a tidy well-organized life in these pages,” he lazily writes, “may be surprised.” He should take that veil and cover his face in shame.

By Adam Johnson
Viking; 256 pages; $24.95.
The Black Veil
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown; 320 pages; $24.95.

Road to Nowhere