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The Good Earth

ALREADY DEAD: A California Gothic. By Denis Johnson . HarperCollins: 438 pp., $25 : THE LONG RAIN. By Peter Gadol . Picador USA: 298 pp., $23

September 28, 1997|SCOTT MARTELLE | Scott Martelle is a Times staff writer

We are, often without our awareness, creatures of the land we inhabit, defined by the terrain on which we live. It helps congeal our sense of beauty, our sense of self. An Easterner, for example, moving to the sere valleys of Southern California, can't help but be taken aback by the dryness, the brownness, the grayness. He is oblivious to what Wallace Stegner used to describe as this subtle beauty that comes in shades other than green.

For a time, anyway. Then the land, much more than the culture, begins to transform the soul. Green slowly loses its sense of nurturing comfort and becomes a color that startles. Gray becomes a shade of expression, rather than a lack of definition. Brown is seen not as a sign of death but as a sign of sleep, with its inherent hopefulness that the land will awaken.

Two new novels, both set farther to our north, offer diverging perceptions of landscape and just how it infuses the soul. The first is Denis Johnson's mesmerizingly hazy journey through evil, "Already Dead: A California Gothic," in which the mountains north of San Francisco are treated as characters, the only ones the reader is confident will survive this harrowing story. To Johnson, the mountains, with their ancient redwood forests and more modern stands of illicit marijuana, are part of the solidity, the literal terra firma over which his human characters roam like ants on a hill.

In "The Long Rain" by Los Angeles' Peter Gadol, the land southeast of San Francisco is less certain, more capricious. Sure, it will stand for eternity, but the problem is what it does along the way, as though the land is a willing conspirator with the Fates to blend a healthy dose of unpredictability and misery into the human condition.

Johnson has the keener grasp of the relationship between land and soul. Or perhaps it's just a more passionate perspective. In "Already Dead," Nelson Fairchild Jr. is a man treading life as if in a still lake: He can see shore but can't get there. His eccentricities border on lunacy, and he knows where that border is because his only brother, William, crossed it long ago, living now in a cabin deep in the woods, trying to avoid rays from the government radar station on a nearby hilltop.

The "gothic" in Johnson's title refers to the Fairchild family patriarch, Nelson Sr., alive but mired in that aching region of knowing he's dying and unable, for once in his will-driven life, to do anything about it. Yet he still controls the lives of those around him. Divorced himself, he wants to ensure that Nelson Jr. will not follow the same path, so he assigns Junior's inheritance to the son's estranged wife. If they go through with the divorce, she takes the riches, mostly virgin timberlands, with her.

So Junior, who spends most of his days in a wine haze, enlists a Nietzsche-quoting drifter he saved from suicide to kill his wife. He blames it on the amoral harshness of the terrain.

"At the moments most precarious for my sanity I'm lost somewhere on these back roads, teetering on these cliffs, witnessing this grandness and longing to match it with the grandest gestures, acts equally solitary and monstrous, things I can never confess," the son says, then confesses anyway. "The wildness of this terrain creates and explains me as much as anything I've inherited or been taught. The shape of this land affords brash designs--no, demands extravagant pretensions."

If pretension is the fronting of loftiness, then Johnson has filled Northern California with pretension's inverse. Even the town cop has a bleak soul.

Murder stands as the central force in "Already Dead," but not in any traditional or predictable sense. The suicidal assassin Junior turned to--the perfect hit man, he figures, because the killer will then kill himself--subverts Junior's plan and changes victims. Instead of killing the wife, he begins killing Junior's family, isolating him. And there's a second team of killers--"the pigmen," Junior calls them--who were sent to catch up with him too. They were hired by a drug lord to get in blood the $100,000 worth of cocaine Junior had failed to smuggle in from Italy.

The cocaine deal is part of a life pattern. At his core, Junior, a child of privilege, is a spineless screw-up. He has become a man of no moral repentance. His regrets are strictly personal: If results affect him, he wishes things were different. There's no redemption to be had, beyond a thin window of remorse once he thinks his wife has been killed. But even then, his thoughts are first for himself.

Junior is a reprehensibly self-centered character, not the kind to successfully anchor a novel. But Johnson makes the novel work largely through the ensemble cast of characters whose lives intertwine with Junior's. They are mystics and drug abusers, petty criminals and the dark-soured cop, as well as Junior's business partner in a stand of pot plants, a combat veteran-turned-surfer-turned-killer.

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