<JohnGabree.com (Some) Writing>



The Stars At Noon by Dennis Johnson
Reviewed by John Gabree

"The air was getting thick -- if you like calling a garotte of diesel and greasy dirt 'air' -- and so before the burning rain began I stopped into the McDonald's. But right away I caught sight of the grotesque troublemaker, the pitiful little fat person whose name was forever escaping me, Sub-tenente Whoever from Interpren, getting out of his black Czechoslovakian Skoda and standing there on the dark street with my fate in his hands ... If I didn't go to bed with him again soon, he was going to lift my card."

So begins "The Stars at Noon," the melodramatic new novel by Denis Johnson, author of the postapocalyptic best seller "Fiskadoro." In the latter, Johnson used elements of fantasy to construct a believable depiction of the world's future. In "The Stars at Noon," he reduces the present-day reality of revolutionary Nicaragua to an unbelievable fantasy.

Johnson's Managua is like one of the rings of hell: The heat is stifling, the sulfurous air unbreathable. But despite a catalogue of gritty details and a few memorable images, he never convinces the reader that the littered, nameless streets -- in one of the nicer touches he uses once too often, Nicaraguan street signs have all been removed -- and broken, embittered inhabitants are anything more than expressions of the narrator's besotted nightmares.

For the anonymous narrator, a part-time hooker and full-time penitent, Managua is the end of a long downhill road. Leaving New York to escape boredom, hopelessness and cockroaches, she has drifted to Central America. Even before she meets "the Englishman," a naive oil company geologist, she is already in trouble. As the story opens, she is being shaken down by the authorities, and the official who gave her a press card in exchange for sexual favors wants it back. She is reduced to begging on the phone for magazine assignments from editors who can barely remember her name ("You sound great, Managua, let's get together soonest and have lunch"). Though we learn a lot about her -- she drinks heavily and she is loaded with local currency but unable to convert any to dollars hard enough to buy her way out -- she never comes alive. She is hidden by the murky metaphorical shadows Johnson has created to represent the battered condition of her soul.

The Englishman -- we never learn his name either -- is more nebulous still. Though she describes him in terms you'd usually reserve for your in-laws' second cousins, the narrator falls desperately in love with him. Their lovemaking is rendered with enthusiasm, but like everything else in this ghostly book, it is never arousing. It is one thing to say of a character, as the narrator does of the Englishman, that "making love to him was like passing through a patch of fog," but it is another to expect to involve the reader in the passion of characters as pale and wispy as these.

The Englishman, the narrator learns too late, is on the run. Saintly and naive, he believes in fairness and has passed along to the Sandinistas secret Costa Rican data about possible oil deposits under Lake Nicaragua. A Costa Rican security agent is on his trail, a threat that might be easier to find menacing if the author gave him more to do than hang around eating sliced mangoes, joined by a crazy but not faintly believable CIA agent.

Johnson apparently means for this novel to address a modern condition marked by cynicism and despair. His world of moral ambiguity is one we have entered many times before, but in the company of shrewder guides. John Le Carre and Graham Greene have demonstrated the dimensions of evil by focusing on the struggle against it. Johnson's narrator is so bent on her own corruption it is impossible to tell where the boundaries of good and evil lie, or whether there is any good at all.

Although she tries to convince herself that the final stages of her damnation began with a phone call to warn the Englishman he was being hunted, she knows from the opening pages that she is doomed. And so, unfortunately, do we. Moral fiction is made interesting by the element of choice. But the narrator of "The Stars at Noon" settled the important questions in her life long before Managua. All that is being played out in these pages are the final twitches of a dying soul. (Book World, The Washington Post, November 1, 1986)



<home> - <bio> - <creativity> - <links> - <writing>

I accept payment through PayPal!, the #1 online payment service!