Before the World Forgets Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson
Just ten years ago, an entire continental literature was up for easy grabs. But who cared about planting a flag in the South Pole of letters?
The seventh continent, birthplace of the concept of wind-chill, has a colonial population not much bigger than its graveyard of Edwardian explorer-corpses, preserved like frozen peas along various expeditions’ competing paths to earth’s southernmost point. Never mind a native literary tradition. Antarctica lacks a native language. Since Robert Falcon Scott first trudged forth into the island’s interior in 1901, would-be Antarctic scribes have run up against their subject’s uncooperative nature, which curses chroniclers with Depression, madness, frostbite of the digits, and death.
It took a full century and the building of centrally heated infrastructure for the island at the bottom of the world to produce something like a minor classic. Its author was a young American writer and itinerant contract worker named Nicholas Johnson, whose memoir Big Dead Place upon publication superseded a century’s worth of self-serving ice-beard memoirs and press-junket hackery.
If you’ve never heard of Johnson or his book, neither have most people. He was a cult author with the Seattle indie press Feral House. His scattered pockets of admirers couldn’t depend on lit blogs for updates about the HBO Big Dead Place series-in-development ( produced by and possibly starring James Gandolfini) or a rumored sequel about Johnson’s recent contracting stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. On November 28, it took a while for word to spread that Johnson had stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and made wall art of his cerebellum at his home in West Seattle. His death passed unnoticed in America’s newspapers, including The New York Times, which in 2005 compared him to Joseph Heller, and the dailies of his native northwest, where he first attained self-publishing fame for his mid-90s ‘zine, Shark Fear, Shark Awareness. Known for its fanatical obsession with galeophobia and sloppy collage art, Shark Fear was a force in the Clinton-era copy shop underground that briefly revived an American tradition Ben Franklin knew as “pamphleteering.” It set the course for the blog that led to the book for which Johnson will be remembered.
Nicholas Darin Johnson was a born wanderer, the kind drawn to six months on, six months off jobs that let you to travel, save, and take half-year vacations. He spent his 20s roving between his native Washington state and a series of Alaskan fisheries and Korean language schools. In 1996, he signed up for the first of several half-year seasons on Antarctica working as a self-described “garbage grunt” on the McMurdo and South Pole bases. He was immediately enthralled and repulsed by the micro-society he found there, a sort of lunar extended summer camp administered by defense and prison labor contractors, and staffed by like-minded freaks and travelers who saw themselves as humanity’s loose material shaken off the edges of civilization to collect at the bottom of the planet. The extreme isolation of it all makes Antarctica a perfect petri dish for a voracious student of human behavior like Johnson. In Antarctica, he also found a place that fed his hunger for the weird and grotesque, a place where frozen fecal stalagmites grow beneath outhouses, requiring the use of plastic explosives, and where the full-moon fiesta never stops. “You have come with images of adventure involving physical endurance and rugged beauty,” writes Johnson. But then, “It is the middle of the night on a Wednesday, and you wake up to pee. You emerge from the women’s room. A man in the hall runs past you with a frozen pig under his arm, pursued by a lurching, drunk clown.”