It’s blithering junkie Johnny Future’s 30th birthday and he’s broker than the ten commandments. He inaugurates the third decade of his life by developing a conscience, which happens when a girl who won’t have sex with him tells the lout to visit his ailing grandmother in the Sun Valley Assisted Living Home. Slogging through a miasma of drug induced inspiration, Mr. Future takes the girl’s advice. He falls in love with a stripper named America, steals a pimp’s car, and breaks his potty-mouthed grandmother out of her nurse infested prison. Steve Abee’s Johnny Future is a gonzo style Los Angeles drug narrative, tinged with evocative glimpses at the ever expanding fringe of American society. Like Crooked Little Vein or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Future suggests that, if the fringe gets any bigger, it’ll consume the center.
Steve Abee paints the life of a desperate drug addict, conscience stricken because he has never visited his grandmother since she was pent up in a nursing home, resolving his guilt with a chaotic attempt to deliver her to freedom. In Johnny’s wake, we are treated to a tour of the proud, desperate, forlorn, and relentlessly loving denizens of the City of Angels.
Along the way, Johnny Future decides it’s time to grow up, to get a real job, mopping up the viewing booths at a porn shop, fancying himself a soldier in the army of love. Love is the revolutionary force, powered by sex and inclusivity, with the ability to rescue and remake this dilapidated world. Love can challenge the hierarchy of death and commerce. Love is what drives Johnny Future to bound to his grandmother’s aid, forsaking all the oppressive, stuffy rules meant to fill us with fear and compliance.
That’s not how Johnny says it, but that’s what he means. Steve Abee does an expert job of inhabiting the character of Johnny Future, telling the entire story in the rambling, commentary-oriented, interior monologue of the protagonist. The first person approach creates a sympathetic link between Johnny Future and the reader, but also takes its toll upon the reader. The thing about Johnny, you see, is that he’s a little dim, he’s a bit of a buffoon, and he’s supposed to be, and that’s cool. But listening to the whole story in Johnny’s dim narration immediately limits Abee in the amount of eloquence to which he can resort. The bind is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s challenge in A Clockwork Orange.
To put it another way, it’s clear that Steve Abee is a better writer than Johnny Future, but we get locked in to hearing Johnny tell the whole tale. From a writer’s perspective, that is a commendable feat of skill all in its own, to inhabit the character so thoroughly, that the apparent voice of the author is obscured behind the story. From a technical standpoint, I like the concept. From an aesthetic standpoint, the character of Johnny Future is not quite engaging enough to tell me the whole story himself. He rambles like he’s got a smart mouth, but misses the mark more often than not. For example, when Johnny Future – flat broke on his birthday – pretends to go shopping at the grocery store while he eats the food in his shopping cart. He is very proud of his ability to appear convincing as a shopper, though he is actually stealing breakfast.
“I’m walking up and down the aisles, putting stuff into my cart, looking at labels, checking grams of fat. You know, shopping.”
Future delivers a nice little smack of wit at that moment, but it is disproportional to the amount of run on sentences and narrow vocabulary I had to slog through to reach the occasional wit. According to Johnny Future, nearly everything is either “cool,” “good,” “fucked up,” or “sad.” Apart from the shopping wit, a more typical sentence was,
“Now I’m walking and chewing my gum and feeling like a cup of coffee and a cigarette would be right on right about now.”
By the end of Johnny Future, I found it a mixed blessing that Johnny was so thoroughly rendered. I was impressed by author Steve Abee’s ability to dumb himself into Johnny Future’s low-life idiom. All the while, there were periodic glimpses of Abee behind the scenes, able to write the story better, but holding back in order to bring Mr. Future to light. Johnny Future is excellently structured, laden with symbols, callbacks, and thematic echos.
One thing in particular that I appreciate about Johnny Future is that the book has a strong ending. Abee brings a precipitation of action and revelation that carries the story firmly, right to the last words. During the course of the book, Johnny Future leaks enough intriguing information about his family that you stop wondering how he ended up this way. The big chase was a blast! I was glad to find out what ultimately happened to Johnny’s grandmother, Dolly Flowers. It was nice to discover who Johnny’s real grandfather was. The structure of the story was tidy and true, despite the dim ramblings of Johnny Future himself. Reading Steve Abee’s Johnny Future made me want to check out other works by Steve Abee, to see how his storyteller’s voice is manifest in other incarnations.
Thanks for reading. Reading rules!