Grief Encounter

Denis Johnson's New Novel Confronts The Loss That Comes Of Living.

The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson. Harper Collins, $22.

GRIEF RESISTS DEFINITION. It may sour or destroy people, but sometimes it works to completely erase personality. The protagonist of Denis Johnson's seventh novel, The Name of the World, is a man circling the edge of the drain that is grief. At best, Michael Reed, like other Johnson maybe-heroes, is damaged goods.

In the four years since his wife and child died in an automobile accident, Reed has only partially existed. As he explains, "For four years I'd hovered ... around my own past. A ghost moving in the mist." Unlike most other Johnson characters, Reed manages to fit in marginally. He teaches history at a Midwestern university, but admits "I did nothing ... I was on vacation." In his spare time he watches ice skaters gliding in endless circles and has imaginary conversations with a man he has never spoken to.

Two events conspire to change Reed's situation. He loses his job, and he encounters the spark of life that shines in Flower Canon.

"Sane? Or tame?" is the question posed to Reed by Flower Canon, cellist/stripper/artist and twentysomething student destined to shake his world. Mutually exclusive to people like Reed or Flower, neither sanity nor tameness can provide useful solutions to life's difficulties. And the fact that Reed and Flower have not only both experienced extreme difficulties, but also actively participated in their own tragedies, is their mutual bond.

Flashes of Johnson's brilliantly dark humor erupt along the story line. As Reed plans an unscheduled meeting with Heidi Franklin, an art historian he tries to become interested in, he blunders into "The Canon Performance" in the fine arts building. Here he encounters Flower Canon on stage, shaving her pubic hair. He explains, "I'd meant to sit out of the way, but as the dais was tucked into this corner, my corner ... I was very nearly in the lap of the performer. ... As I leaned forward to see, I caught myself, terribly embarrassed. But nobody was looking at me."

Nobody is thinking much of him either when he loses his job. Reed almost skips a faculty meeting, deciding instead to check out the action at a local casino. After a pointlessly received punch in the nose, he stops by the meeting late, entering the small lounge "reminiscent of a prison's visiting area," where conversation is halted by his presence. He finds "the purpose of today's gathering was to celebrate me. Because I was leaving. Everyone applauded politely. Apparently they weren't going to renew my contract. This was news." The department head had simply forgotten to inform him.

The stagnation in Reed's life comes to a climax after he stops teaching. He hangs around town watching his friends drink until one day a friend insists he drive his car. Reed explains, "I hadn't driven a car in a long time, not in four years, plus three months. I liked driving the car. ... I held the steering wheel and tromped the accelerator ... the car was mine." Physically and metaphorically mobile, Reed can finally move on.

The culminating scene happens at Flower Canon's studio. Reed follows Flower to a church where he experiences the liberation of "abruptly" knowing "there was no God." He drives Flower to her isolated basement studio where they discuss the fact that they are each singularly and uniquely damaged. Just when the action threatens to turn into a December/June romance, something interesting happens: Flower Canon shares the devastating secret of her name.

Denis Johnson books are not for everybody. As Reed says, "What I first require of a work of art is that its agenda ... not include me. I don't want its aims put in doubt by an attempt to appeal to me, by any awareness of me at all." So it is with Johnson's novels. They follow their own logic and sometimes become almost lost in a swirl of poetry. Inevitably, there is also grief; grief and confronting the loss that comes of living in the world.