A Penchant for the Absurd

To Adam Johnson, no story is beyond belief.

May/June 2002

Reading time min

A Penchant for the Absurd

Photo: Rod Searcey

A 15-year-old police sniper who’s having trouble pulling the trigger: this is the first character to spring out of Adam Johnson’s debut collection of short stories. The young sniper’s not stalling through lack of experience or courage. He’s distracted. Every time he tries to focus on his target—a Hewlett-Packard employee who’s holding data hostage—his mind begins to wander to the cute girl he met at the Brazilian jujitsu club the night before.

Sound a little strange? Wait until you meet the Canadian fur trapper who lands on the moon or the adolescent amnesiac who harbors wolves and crocodiles as pets. In Emporium (Viking, 2002), there are no outcasts. The author embraces the absurd, and his imagination has caught the attention of Esquire, Harper’s and the Stegner fellowship program at Stanford.

Thirteen years ago, long before his stories were chosen for anthologies like Best New American Voices or Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Johnson worked in high-rise construction, where he earned the nickname Rubbernecker. He acquired it by habitually poking his head around corners and peeking into rooms that were off-limits.

“I guess I’ve just always been fascinated with the inner workings of things, what’s behind the surface,” he says. But this wasn’t something Johnson felt he could cultivate in a 9-to-5 job. So, in 1993, he left construction and headed for McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., to pursue an MFA in creative writing and an MA in English.

There, he met Robert Olen Butler, who immediately noticed something different about him. While most of the young writers in Butler’s class were familiarizing themselves with the campus, Johnson was finding out where to go in southwest Louisiana for the best cockfights and zydeco music.

“Adam always had an intense interest in the world around him,” says Butler, Johnson’s mentor and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. “That is, I think, an essential quality for an artist. Adam is ravenous for life.”

Curiosity comes naturally to Johnson, who arrived at Stanford in 1999 and remains on the Farm to teach creative writing as a Jones lecturer. “I always try to get people talking,” he says. “Everybody’s got stories, and the people you think don’t have them have the best ones, because they’re never asked.”

Like a 15-year-old sniper? That might not be as crazy as it sounds, according to Johnson. “Teen Sniper” is “your basic teen-angst story,” he asserts. True, protagonist Tim’s position with the Palo Alto P.D. isn’t exactly a paper route, but his relationship with Seema, the older girl he’s been attracted to ever since their sparring match, is appropriately adolescent. Tim has all the insecurities of a pimple-faced teenager. He’s terrified he’ll come off as uncool—a fear he combats by programming his best friend (a bomb-defusing robot) to utter hip greetings like “What up, homies?”

But just where does a robot, or Brazilian jujitsu for that matter, fit into a teen-angst piece? “If I can throw in a really absurd element,” Johnson explains, “people are off-balanced. And I can slip the same [old] story under the door.”

It’s not a simple matter of shock appeal. Johnson also uses the ridiculous in hilarious but scathing social commentary. In “Teen Sniper,” each detail reveals how humans distance themselves, physically and emotionally, from one another. Tim’s best friend is a robot, much as many people become personally attached to their computers. His rifle has a state-of-the-art scope so that he doesn’t have to look at the human target; it’s just a digital image.

While Tim perches atop a warehouse roof, his lens trained on someone who has only stolen some information, he explains to the reader what it takes to kill another person. In doing so, he reveals that, for him, empathy is achieved only when two people are farthest apart. “The secret to being a world-class sniper is knowing how to stop your heart. I exhale, my chest goes quiet, and there’s a ghostly feeling of serenity in my limbs. The rifle seems to just settle into its purpose, and things feel clear and flat in the scope. There’s a hollow crack, and for a second, the time it takes for the spent shell to spring and glint to the ground, [the target] and I will both be lifeless.”

“Teen Sniper” opens with a fatal shot, making the reader question whether Tim is even capable of a genuine human relationship. Oddly, this is where martial arts come into play. The trick to Brazilian jujitsu, Johnson says, is that you have to draw someone near in order to fight. “You have to embrace your opponent. And that is exactly what Tim needed—someone to show him how to be close.”

How does Johnson dream up characters like Tim in the first place, and make them believable? Novelist and Stanford English professor John L’Heureux attributes the success of Johnson’s unusual but persuasive stories to an “imagination that’s completely sprung loose.”

But Johnson also does research. To achieve a convincing portrayal of a police community for the story “Trauma Plate,” he strapped on a bulletproof vest and patrolled some of the Southwest’s worst neighborhoods with the Phoenix Crime Prevention Unit. For the jujitsu subplot of “Teen Sniper,” the 6-foot-4 author sparred with his wife, Stephanie, who studies the martial art. “I weigh 265,” Johnson confesses, “and she weighs 115 or so. She’ll get me into a position where I think nothing’s wrong, and then wham, it’s over.”

Johnson’s not afraid to humble himself—neither to his wife (wisely) nor to the practice of writing itself. Each time he begins a new piece, he confronts the same doubts. “You don’t know if this story’s going to be worth telling. And if it is, are you good enough to write it?”

The author’s mentors seem to think he is. “He’s got a deeply personal and unique worldview,” Butler says. “He sees the world in a certain way that none of us quite do—or we all do and don’t quite understand it until he articulates it. He’s a major literary talent.”

Johnson is backing up the talk. With Emporium on its way to bookstore shelves, the 34-year-old writer is working on his first novel, to be released in the spring of 2003. Set partly in 9850 B.C. and partly in 2037, Parasites Like Us will follow a ragtag team of anthropologists who are “accidentally involved in a great plague.” Far-fetched? According to Butler, “Once you enter an Adam Johnson story, you believe everything, no matter how strange things get.”

Andrew Hinderaker, ’01, MA ’02, is a writer based in Mountain View.

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