Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays
by Fenton Johnson
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411438
By Noah Sanders
You will, after reading Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays, want Fenton Johnson to be your life coach, your personal philosopher, your guide in navigating the shallow, treacherous waters of life. Johnson is, by trade, none of these things. He has, in his storied life, been a gay rights activist, a son of small-town, Catholic Kentucky, a survivor of AIDS, a mourning lover, a high school basketball player, and much, much more. Above all this though, Fenton Johnson has, for four decades and counting, been a writer of exceptional talent, and even more exceptional warmth. He is the kind of clear-eyed observer who is able to integrate his deep knowledge of faith and philosophy into his own perspective, his own experiences. The essays in Everywhere Home are a loosely chronological exploration of both Johnson’s journey from backwoods Kentucky to the Bay Area and beyond as well as his evolution as both a thinker and a writer. The subject matter can be disparate, but Johnson connects everything with his own hopeful worldview, a deceivingly simple one: the world is a hard and often cruel place, but in the lowest moments of our past and those we’ve yet to encounter, there is always love—clear and open-minded, big and small—to lead us forward.
The subjects in Everywhere Home range dramatically from Johnson’s upbringing in rural Kentucky to his breakdown of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” to his exploration of a reintroduction of Pacifism in American politics, to name a few. With the author clearing the path amongst these varied topics, all of them become fascinating looks at our society as a whole, and at our roles as individuals within it. The book could be oversimplified into “past, present and future” but it is the intersection of these abstracts, where Johnson makes his most poignant points about love and faith. In “Safe(r) Sex” he becomes the erstwhile sex education teacher to his extended family, the recent heart-rending loss of his lover to AIDS helping to open a space where he can expand both his, and his family’s definition of love. “I had become for them,” Johnson writes, “a different kind of father: a comrade and repository of family history; a bridge between them and [their father].”
In “Power and Obedience: Restoring Pacifism to American Politics” Johnson uses three separate experiences—a tour of an abandoned nuclear silo, his decision to declare himself a conscientious objector, and his dissection of William James “The Moral Equivalent of War”—to argue that we can turn our innate lust for battle towards the real dangers that threaten our society. It is a prime example of what Johnson does best in Everywhere Home: he explains complicated philosophies elegantly, winding them into his own personal beliefs and experiences to help bolster and examine potential solutions. “What might we achieve,” he writes, discussing the brief amount of time it took America to concept and build out the Titan Missile program, “if our leaders motivated us not to destroy the Earth, but to heal it?”
Johnson lived as a gay man in San Francisco during the grim, early days of the AIDS crisis in America, and the pain and grief of that time is deeply etched into his writing. His exhuming of his own memories in “The Secret Decoder Ring Society” is as much a mournful remembrance of the loss felt by the gay community as it is Johnson’s coming to terms with the death of his lover, Larry Rose. And like in all his pieces in Everywhere Home, Johnson is able, like a thoughtful monk, to find both understanding and some amount of the positive in even the greatest depths of pain. “Love does not measure itself by clock and calendar,” he writes, “but is our entryway into the true world, shorn of the illusions of time and space.” The AIDS epidemic in America, horrible as it was, has allowed Johnson an avenue to look within himself, past the boundaries of his sexuality, to find his a spectrum of emotions, from anger to acceptance, and find hopeful meaning in it. “I did not choose to be gay,” he writes, “but I did choose to ally myself with those who find beauty in suffering – the wisest act of my life thus far.”
There is no limit, aside from page count, to Fenton Johnson’s reflection and insights into his own life. Any reader, regardless of sexuality, religious or political belief, will, if even the scantest amount of heart beats within their chest, put down Everywhere Home a little sadder, perhaps a little angrier, but full-up with the particular light of inspiration Johnson is able to pass forward. The author never settles for cliché or platitude, but instead grasps the full span of life’s emotional output—the good, the bad, and the utterly painful that he himself is a product of—and manages, beautifully, to derive hope.