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Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond


Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond Cover




Chapter One
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...

Product Details

Johnson, Denis
Harper Perennial
Park, Hui-Jin
by Denis Johnson
Yeo, Beop-Ryong
New York
United states
Developing countries
Novelists, American
TRAVEL / General
Edition Number:
1st Perennial ed.
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Publication Date:
March 2002
Grade Level:
8.02x5.40x.66 in. .51 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Anthologies » Essays
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » Journalism » Reference
Travel » General
Travel » Travel Writing » General

Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$8.00 In Stock
Product details 256 pages Perennial - English 9780060930479 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The best thing about Denis Johnson's writing is that he never seems to take the easy way out. Some of these nonfiction pieces in this collection are searing and brutal, a few are soul searching, and a couple just plain funny. They made me think about differently about the people and places that are his subjects, and not necessarily for the better. If you've read Johnson's fiction you should enjoy these essays; if you haven't, Seek might not be the easiest place to start, but it will be a rewarding one.

"Staff Pick" by ,

In 1992 the New Yorker sent Denis Johnson to Africa to interview Charles Taylor, the self-described president of Liberia. Everything was carefully planned before the trip, but when he arrived, he found the New Yorker hadn't realized that it is impossible to schedule a trip — to schedule anything — in Liberia, let alone an interview with the elusive president. After one particularly frustrating delay, Johnson reviewed the documents that had seemed to ensure everything had been arranged: "Now incomprehensible incantations covered the pages. The words of the messages, the names, the places, even the letterheads pulsed with mystery and a joyous insanity." This is a quintessential Denis Johnson moment. He travels to some indecipherable foreign land — whether actual or metaphorical — and reveals its mystery and joyous insanity. Though best known as one of the country's most accomplished writers of poetry and fiction, including the sublime classic Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson is also a first-rate journalist. Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond is his first collection of essays, and a welcome addition indeed to his already impressive body of work. Whether traveling abroad (Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines) or around the country (to a gathering of the Rainbow Family, a Christian bikers' revival, a militia group) Johnson portrays a world that is almost as absurd, gut-wrenching, and hilarious as the one we actually inhabit.

"Review" by , "As a journalist, Johnson searches for something beyond headlines and, at least in this collection, that makes for an intriguing and insightful investigation."
"Review" by , "There is a special pleasure in seeing a writer of Denis Johnson's caliber try something that is not his specialty....[E]ven his failures intrigue; and when he succeeds, the results can be spectacular."
"Review" by , "What legitimizes this collection is Johnson's refusal to patronize his subjects. Rather than writing from a throne of moral or intellectual superiority, the author muddles through the murk, searching for a ray of redemption."
"Review" by , "There isn't an American voice I love listening to more than Denis Johnson's."
"Synopsis" by , In this provocative collection of essays, Denis Johnson opens the doors to a world most Americans have never seen — and few journalists dare to tread. This compilation spans 20 years of observing, reporting, and living on the edge: from the Liberian Civil War to a Christian biker rally; from a militia meeting near Ruby Ridge to a revival meeting of Christian Evangelicals; from the North Carolina Mountains in search of an anti-abortionist bomber to mining for gold in Alaska. Seek offers a hauntingly lyrical portrait of life in the outer fringes of the American dream that is as idiosyncratic and remarkable as Denis Johnson's finest works of fiction.
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