Review of Big Dead Place
- Nicholas Johnson
260 pp., Feral House Press
Reviewed by Adam Boyd Gilman
With his rookie offering, Big Dead Place, Nicholas Johnson has dispelled the government-sponsored, media-authored myth of Antarctica as “pristine frozen laboratory,” an untamed frontier peopled by a brotherhood of patriotic souls who risk their lives hourly for the advancement of humankind through scientific endeavor. Instead, readers are introduced to McMurdo Station and South Pole Station—claustrophobic, diesel-soaked outposts filled with foul-mouthed garbagemen, drunken ironworkers, hammer-swinging cooks, and an impressive cohort of petty bureaucrats. This Antarctica, try as one may, cannot be co-opted as a metaphor for the perseverance of the human spirit; it is a metaphor for an entirely different aspect of the human condition, a stupor brought on by an unbalanced ratio of purpose to activity, with the scale tipped decidedly to the latter.
Fingees (Antarctic shorthand for “fucking new guys”) show up at McMurdo ready to test their mettle against the harshest climate on earth. Full of romantic fantasies of isolation, frostbite, starvation, and their own unflappability, they are primed to join the ranks of the world’s great explorers. This illusion, Johnson explains, quickly dissipates as they find themselves performing thankless tasks in a glorified supply depot, attending teeth-grinding policy meetings and safety classes, and all the time being watched over and reprimanded by a team of shameless, power-drunk corporate lackeys, little Eichmanns on ice. It’s hard to maintain a sense of higher purpose in the face of such overwhelming inanity.
Johnson carries out his fervent debunking—his own higher purpose—through a skillful blend of Antarctic pop history and anecdotes from his personal experiences at McMurdo. The former consists of tales of madness and mayhem in varying degrees, focusing on juicy tidbits that most conventional histories omit. There’s the story of Mawson and Mertz, explorers who lost their food supply, along with a fellow expedition member, in a crevasse several hundred miles from base camp. Forced to butcher their sled dogs, they unknowingly ingested toxic levels of Vitamin A stored in the dogs’ livers. “As a result,” Johnson writes, “the men’s flesh and hair began to litter the floor of their tent at night. Puss-filled cracks opened on their faces. Their scrotums bled.” (p. 65) Soon after, Mertz went mad, biting off his little finger, wondering aloud whether he was man or dog, and shouting the words “Ears! Ears! Earache!” before succumbing to one of the several illnesses racking his body. “Irreverent interpretations” such as the above do tend to highlight the bilious underbelly of the continent’s past, but they fail to hide Johnson’s unabashed reverence toward the most harrowing journeys of discovery on the seventh continent, and the men who undertook them.
When it comes to his own time on the ice, he is far less prone to romanticize. He relates his own experiences with a dark and brutal humor that can alternately set the reader on edge, boil his blood, and bust his gut. Like any good contrarian, Johnson relishes the brazen existence of his foil, living in a bizarrely comforting symbiosis with that which he detests and fears; in this case, it’s the Raytheon Polar Services Company, a subdivision of the colossal defense contractor. Rooting through McMurdo’s trash for evidence, keeping meticulous records of any and all interaction with management, planting his ear to the wall, he collects stories of hypocrisy, violence, vindictiveness, PC skittishness, spin and other brands of ugliness. And he loves every minute of it. Despite the overwhelming number of these stories, however, Johnson still manages to convey what it is he loves about McMurdo: the sense of camaraderie that he and his fellow grunts share as they thumb their noses at the system and its minions. It’s what keeps them coming back year after year to a frozen microcosm of the worst America can offer.
For updates on the B.D.P., check out Johnson’s website at http://www.bigdeadplace.com/