Part political disquisition, part travel journal, part self-exploration, Seek is a collection of essays and articles in which Denis Johnson essentially takes on the world.And not an obliging, easygoing world either; but rather one in which horror and beauty exist in such proximity that they might well be interchangeable. Where violence and poverty and moral transgression go unchecked, even unnoticed. A world of such wild, rocketing energy that, grasping it, anything at all is possible.
Whether traveling through war-ravaged Liberia, mingling with the crowds at a Christian Biker rally, exploring his own authority issues through the lens of this nation's militia groups, or attempting to unearth his inner resources while mining for gold in the wilds of Alaska, Johnson writes with a mixture of humility and humorous candor that is everywhere present.
With the breathtaking and often haunting lyricism for which his work is renowned, Johnson considers in these pieces our need for transcendence. And, as readers of his previous work know, Johnson's path to consecration frequently requires a limning of the darkest abyss. If the path to knowledge lies in experience, Seek is a fascinating record of Johnson's profoundly moving pilgrimage.
The Civil War in Hell
It's late September and the Liberian civil war has been stalled, at its very climax, for nearly three weeks. The various factions simmer under heavy West African clouds. Charles Taylor and his rebels are over here; they control most of the country and the northern part of the capital, Monrovia -- the part where the radio station is, and many nights Taylor harangues his corner of the universe with speeches about who he's killed and who he's going to kill, expectorating figures with a casual generosity that gets him known as a liar, referring to himself as "the President of this nation" and to his archrival as "the late Prince Johnson." Meanwhile Prince Johnson, very much alive, holds most of the capital. Johnson's titles are Field Marshal, Brigadier General, and Acting President of Liberia; "Prince" is just his name. Johnson's men eliminated the president two weeks ago, and they've been roaming the city ever since, exterminating the dead president's soldiers, piling their bodies on the streets -- as many as two hundred one night -- or scattering them along the beaches. They, the president's decimated Armed Forces of Liberia, occupy a no-man's-land between Taylor's and Johnson's checkpoints, more or less in the middle of the city, a gutted landscape of unrelieved starvation where the dwindling group robs and loots and burns and the skeletal citizens wander, dying of cholera and hunger. In Johnson's sector are stationed about a thousand troops from the ECOWAS -- Economic Community of West African States -- a sixteen-nation group that has sent this peacekeeping force to Monrovia with instructions, basically, not to do anything. The ECOWAS forces enjoy a strange alliance with Prince Johnson. Everybody thought they'd arrest him; instead the ECOWAS troops stood by while Johnson's men shot and kidnapped the president, Samuel K. Doe, the first time he set foot outside the executive mansion after several weeks of lying low, and they ducked for cover while Johnson's rebels searched out and killed sixty-four of Doe's bodyguards, hunting from room to room of the ECOWAS headquarters. Meanwhile, two U.S. ships wait offshore with a force of Marines, exasperating everyone by merely floating and floating while the corpses mount...because nobody wants either of the rebels to rule the land, and the only people capable of installing an interim government of reasonable types are the American Marines, for two reasons absurdly obvious to all Liberians: first, because they're Americans, and second, because they're Marines. Liberians don't want another coup like the one in 1980, when Samuel K. Doe, then an army officer, took over and executed the cabinet before TV cameras on the beach. The firing squad was drunk and was obliged, in some cases, to reload and shoot again from closer range.
Doe was of the Krahn, the most rural and deprived of Liberia's tribes, looked down on as uncivilized and often accused of savagery and cannibalism. Suddenly the Krahn were running the place. Doe ruled in a way generally agreed to have been both stupid and cruel. He lasted ten years. Halfway along, Doe weathered a coup attempt. General Quiwonkpa, its leader, was divided into pieces and the pieces were paraded around town, and then, in order to assume the strength of this bold pretender and in front of reliable witnesses, Doe's men ate him. Now, five years later, Doe has fallen at the hands of Prince Johnson. According to Johnson, Doe "died of his wounds."
The first American settlers arrived in Liberia in the 1820s, sponsored by the American Colonization Society, which was founded by President Washington's nephew Bushrod Washington. They were freed American slaves returning to the continent of their origins. In 1847 they founded an independent nation and began more or less legitimately governing the Gio and the Mano and the Krahn. The Americo-Liberians, as the colonists' descendants were called, held sway until 1980 and Doe. As most Liberians see it, their history is wedded to America's. The U.S. enjoys an almost mystical veneration in the region. Liberians don't know that most Americans couldn't guess on which of the seven continents they actually reside, that images of their war have rarely been shown on U.S. television, that their troubles have scarcely been mentioned on U.S. radio. They can't understand why the Americans won't send in troops, or call for an interim government, or offer to host peace talks. They don't understand that among Americans they have no constituency, that even among black congressmen they have few advocates. They don't know why the Americans are making them wait.
West Africa is the land where God came to learn to wait. And then wait a little longer. The Nigerian freighter River 0li has waited eight days now to leave the port of Freetown in Sierra Leone, waited to bring five hundred ECOWAS troops and two hundred tons of rice and canned food to Monrovia. Waited for the rice to come. For the fuel to be found for the ship. For the decision to be made as to who would pay for the fuel. For the slings to be located with which to load the rice. For the man to be found, the man who had the key to the room where the slings were kept. For the decision to be made whether or not to break down the door because the man who had the key couldn't seem to find it. For the door to be forced. For the rice to be loaded. For the soldiers to get on board. For the judgment to be reached that everything was at last in order. For the several prostitutes and two Freetown policewomen to disembark with fond reluctance in the early hours, straightening their wide black belts...