Hard Echo Press, $27.95
While official feminism may be liberating and strengthening women, it is having an unfortunate effect on male writers, artists and intellectuals. Many males now cravenly play to the feminist ears and eyes that are everywhere – especially in our educational and cultural institutions – and are consequently losing their creative boldness in the name of that bête noir of mediocrity, political correctness.
This isn’t the case in Mike Johnson’s novel – it’s a searing exposé of the male psyche that isn’t angled in the direction of the feminist sensibility which is increasingly acting as a censor of true art, allowing male writers the soft option of playing to the gallery. That said there are some disturbing aspects to Lethal Dose – it isn’t the best example of the freedom that its aggressively male stance might indicate. It lacks the hectic surreality of Henry Miller though it does attain now and then the drunken, black, street humour of Charles Bukowski – for instance when poet Clyde Aichen invites his tough-guy publisher George Stockman to kiss his vomit-dribbling mouth.
The difficulty that some readers will have with Lethal Dose is that it is three novels in one. The first is about the struggle of the artist (Aichen striving for a good new poem or novel); the second concerning the lonely male who drinks too much and has to compete with other even drunker and cruder males, but who can still fall hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman; thirdly, there is the novel that deals with the environmentalist crusader who doesn’t win the battle over the herbicide, Roundup.
The intriguing thing is that these three novels are one text; or are they all aspects of Aichen’s complex and unhappy psyche? There is even a fourth hinted at – the teasingly metafictional construct about the best strategy for writing a novel (which the blurb somewhat cutely endorses). Publisher Stockman says Aichen should include him, and Aichen (Johnson?) rather unflatteringly does that. It was courageous, reckless even, for Johnson to attempt to compress these novels in one relatively short work; yet in doing so he makes a compelling case for the complexity of the male psyche – especially its murky destructive side. Unfortunately he has rather over emphasised the least endearing aspects of it ‑ especially when adversely affected with alcohol. Aichen himself remains a conundrum – is he a Modernist genius gone awry or a drunken lecher who occasionally flukes a good poem? The novel to its credit, but possibly to our confusion, doesn’t answer that question, though it prompts us, at times aggressively, to opt for the less flattering view.
The novel’s title also is a witty triple-tiered play on a phrase which refers simultaneously to the level of dosage required to kill half the animals in a sample group, the critical level for a chemically sensitive human, and the brilliant madonna/ whore polarity of Dylan’s song lyric, I bargained for salvation/ and she gave me a lethal dose.
Lethal Dose then plays off the dichotomy (news to some possibly) that the poet can be both drunken lecherous bard and craftsmanly lyricist who remains sensitive to beauty. Indeed Lethal Dose is on one level the old tale of Beauty and the Beast except that the beauty with whom Aichen is entranced (a young student in his writing class) does not love the beast. And it has to be said poet Aichen is fairly beastly – he slaps his mute mother in an attempt to make her speak, he spies on a drunken friend to check out his performance in a brothel (‘limpsexed’), pockets his on and off lover Moira’s blue ceramic vase and makes a less than adequate attempt to rescue inebriated Moira from the incoming Manukau tide.
The uneven quality of Lethal Dose suggests that it may have been written in undue haste. There are some passages which are embarrassingly bad, some that are convincingly intense, and many that are extraordinarily deft and incisive. My favourite among the deft: ‘The trendy slogan is, the personal is the political, ‘ Clyde Aichen said, fully hitting his stride, ‘which seems to do the trick, but I wonder if we don’t interpret this slogan in a political way. We politicise the personal instead of personalizing, I mean humanizing, the political Anyway, our writing is caught in the squeeze between.’
Lear, Johnson’s first novel, was a challenging work that intriguingly combined high and low literary genres to produce a minor masterpiece. Lethal Dose has not succeeded in satisfactorily synthesising the various competing aspects of Aichen’s booze-tormented psyche into a satisfying artistic whole (but then neither has Aichen). Let us hope that the author is moving through the harsh but inventive vigour of his art and craft towards achieving that happy homeostasis for his own psyche.
Michael Morrissey is an Auckland writer.