Review: Dave Fitzgerald on Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag, a novel by Adam Johnson

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I used to have a very bad habit that routinely got me into trouble. And I call it a habit, but really it was probably something closer to a crosswired tic—a kind of subconscious psychic defense mechanism—I couldn’t help it, I swear—but regardless, my insistence on its innocuous, autonomic nature rarely passed muster with whatever authority figure I’d pissed off that day. You see, until sometime in my mid-teens when I finally managed to get a better handle on my maxillofacial muscles, I was afflicted with the unfortunate reflex of smiling at bad news. To this day, I couldn’t tell you where it came from, or how or why it started. The best I can do is to say that, somewhere in the depths of my limbic mind, I’ve often struggled to take the world, up to and very much including myself, seriously. I’m not a sociopath or anything. I actually feel an often overwhelming amount of empathy—even for those I wholeheartedly disagree with—even for those I actively dislike. It’s one of the things that, I think, makes me a good writer (YMMV on this). Likewise, I don’t remember ever smirking at war, or violence, or death, or even more abstractly political issues like racial injustice or gender inequality or climate change (though I definitely smirk at a certain brand of insular, academic wokeness at times, depending on its pitch and tenor). I still remember, vividly, curling up in the fetal position and sobbing at Columbine footage. Walking around in a shellshocked daze on 9/11. Feeling fearful, and physically sick the morning after the Trump election. I know serious when I see it. But I can admit that there is something about people insisting, with every fiber of their being, that their own (comparably) low-stakes personal issues aren’t funny, which has always made them just a little bit funnier to me.

The lines we draw between what is and isn’t funny have changed a lot, even in the time since I was a smart-aleck kid who’d say almost anything for a laugh. And they’re lines I’ve been thinking about quite a bit these past few years as I’ve shepherded my own dark, satirical first novel, Troll, to the brink of publication, but nothing I’ve written, and none of the lines I’ve carefully considered and/or crossed during that time, can hold a candle to what Adam Johnson has pulled off with his psychotically erudite gonzo death trip Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag, an unhealthily obsessed stalker’s love letter to transgressive literary history. Johnson’s central antagonist, who only ever provides us with the vaguely self-deifying mononym Goddard, is an unrepentant antihero on par with the all-timers. Swan diving from the ivory tower lechery of Humbert Humbert, plummeting down through the dipsomaniacal rapacity of John Self, and landing with a sickening splat amid the unhinged gutter depravities of Burroughs’s Interzone, this is a man effectively ticking off “the evils that men do” like a frenzied cancer patient’s stage-4 bucket list, determined to sate every appetite; refusing to leave one morsel of meat on the bone. Through his rhapsodically itemized psychic disintegration, Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag draws a swerving, staggering line from the highest-minded to the lowest-browed of criminal behaviors (call it upper crustpunk) that puts the lie to all the different reasons authors have trotted out over the years (myself, again, very much included) for writing subversively about the worst humanity has to offer. A grandiloquent grab at the final word on the subject, it cracks an inappropriate smile that doesn’t stop widening, clacking, cackling, until at long last it bites your face off, and swallows it whole.

At the outset, Goddard seems, at best, like a pompous, narcissistic windbag with some deeply unsavory sexual proclivities. That is the absolute kindest impression one could possibly glean from his immersive inner monologue (which comprises virtually the entire text), and even it proves extremely shortlived. As he begins his book-long confessions, Johnson brings to life this fiend’s piss-stream-of-consciousness with an unnerving patience and control, his thoughts deftly deteriorating from the grandiose pedantry and multilingual wordplay of the first act to the gin-soaked lunatic ravings of the third—a hyperliterate roadmap of his all-too-traceable highway to Hell. A tale of wickedness and woe that begins with nothing more harmful (though obviously disgusting) than listening at the bathroom door while his newly-betrothed daughter-in-law takes a pee, only to escalate over the course of a few months to a point where (spoiler alert) he’s literally fucking corpses (plural).

It’s not funny.

But also, it really is.

To say much more about the plot of this wild-eyed, foamy-mouthed, and gleefully deranged novel would be giving much of its masterful game away, but it hurtles forward with the three-sheets, pell-mell momentum of its besotted central figure’s titular Jaguar, clipping every guardrail, fire hydrant, and slow-footed squirrel it encounters along the way (not to mention more than a few innocent pedestrians), and daring you on a nearly page-by-page basis to pop your door latch and tuck-and-roll to safety before it’s too late; before the needle ticks into the red and you’re carried right over the edge of oblivion with it. Goddard is irredeemable. And what’s more, he is not looking for, or likely even disposed to the idea of redemption. As the book’s opening epigraph states plain as day, he sees his admission of guilt as a way of making him stronger. Love him or hate him, he owns his villainy. Cherishes it. Polishes it bright and displays it for all to see. He is smarter than any system that would seek to contain him, such that even his descent into total, old school asylum-worthy madness feels like a logical move—one that he intentionally engineers in order to continue living some semblance of the foul manner to which he’s grown accustomed. He has no patience for the nuanced self-doubt of a Harry Haller, or even the strained social niceties of a Patrick Bateman. He is pure, unadulterated id. I don’t make this assertion lightly, but even with all the touchstones I’ve already mentioned, I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever read a character quite like him.

Having said all that, what I do think bears more discussion is the why of it all. Why do authors write characters like this? Why do we engage with them? Why have they coalesced, since at least the days of Dostoyevsky and Ducasse, into their own unofficial genre of misanthropic one-upmanship and vicious anarchy? An ersatz subterranean genre which has been asked at every turn, by stuffy, serious, and vehemently unsmiling critics—hands planted firmly on their morally upright hips—what exactly it has to say for itself? Are they seeking to diagnose society’s ills, in order that we might better recognize and combat them? That seems a little namby-pamby now doesn’t it? Are they working to provide a bay window onto the abyss? To allow others to ogle the darkness like a tranqued out lion at the zoo without having to risk getting too close themselves? That’s maybe closer, but still a tad altruistic, don’t you think? Is it just a nihilistic lark? A middle finger to notions of karmic justice, egalitarian narrative convention, and the cult of the happy ending? A disillusioned scream into the void that none of that, but rather this, this is the way things really are? Yeah. That’s definitely part of it. But even that is a bit stale on its own. It’s been said a lot. Loudly, and a lot.

So why then?

Where do these books come from?

What do they want from us?

Where do they expect us to go?

Obviously I can’t speak for Adam Johnson, nor would I presume to try, but I can tell you that in interrogating my own motivations these past few years for swimming around in and giving voice to the inmost savageries of a wholly repugnant sort of mind, I have had occasion to describe the writing process as everything from a detoxification, to an amputation, to an exorcism. I’ve talked to other transgressive authors about this uncomfortable disconnect and heard them make similar comparisons. And as many times as I’ve insisted to early readers that my book is not “about me” in any “meaningful way,” (and it really isn’t), I’ve still had to grapple with the fact that a hideous creation, and his relentless inner diatribe which comprises virtually my entire text—whether I like it or not—did spring fully formed from my brain. I can only imagine Johnson dealt with this too. A kind of personal reckoning. A knowing in your bones that something is both terrible, and terribly important, and feeling that if you don’t get it down—get it right—get it out of you—that it might well take hold for good. Metastasize into places inoperable. Grow from one demon, into Legion. And so we write—as therapy—as outlet—as defense—as release—the psychic equivalent of “fighting over there” (in your work) “so you don’t have to fight over here” (in your head). A devilish smile at the outer dark.

Or perhaps the reason this once-outsidery strain of writing has become so codified is because the world has finally forced enough optimistic normies to admit that their presupposed happy ending isn’t coming. That we’re all increasingly racing toward our personal dooms in the grips of whatever substances and scant pleasures we can get our hands on. That enough people’s individual breaking points have been reached—whether due to economic instability, or media saturation, or climate catastrophe, or forever war—that things once considered too serious to joke about are now the only things we have left.

It’s been a slow slide down this slippery slope, and far be it from me to suggest we’ve hit rock bottom (though there’s no doubt Johnson is gunning for it), but if you can’t laugh—at least a little bit—at the sheer absurdity of the ongoing autosarcophagy of American Democracy, or the subsumption of actual identity into the tribalism of identity politics; at, say, the evangelical-backed President of the United States trying (and failing) to keep a porn star from speaking publicly about the size and shape of his dick, or the richest man in the world trying (and failing) to buy in bulk the love and respect of the entire internet; at the trigger warning-appended newscasters vehemently trying (and failing) to impress upon us just how extremely serious and unfunny all these things are, or, quite frankly, at a middle-aged egomaniac jerking off in a drunken stupor with his son’s wife’s panties over his head while waxing eloquent about the glories of Nabokov and Verdi, then you are perhaps not built for this terrible (and possibly final) century. I don’t think anything would land me in the loony bin with Goddard faster than losing my ability to laugh at all this ridiculous, (comparably) low-stakes trouble. The simple fact of the matter is, sometimes things are funny simply because they’re not supposed to be. And even with things happening in our world every day—and certainly moments in this heroically demented book—that far surpass what I can personally find the humor in, to occasionally crack an inappropriate smile is (and always has been) (and always will be) a matter of survival.

Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag, by Adam Johnson. Anxiety Press, July 2022. 250 pages. $14.00, paper.

Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.

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