Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays
by Fenton Johnson
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Nothing affects this varied yet cohesive book of beautifully written essays more than its author’s unique perspective. This perspective, more than anything, is predicated on the author’s standing as an outsider and that outsider’s power of observation. It goes far beyond his sense of being different because he’s a gay man, although that’s often at the fore. He grew up a Catholic in a southern state surrounded by Protestants and Evangelicals; he attended Stanford where he was seen only as a Southerner, although, as a Northern Kentucky boy, his ancestors fought for the Union. Even his identity as a disciple of his adopted home of San Francisco still informs his work, although he moved on long ago. It’s this sense of otherness that hones his razor-sharp powers of observation of the world around him and informs his prose. He’s a visual writer as well as astute student of the human condition with his own unique take on the human condition, religion, and the politics of identity.
In Part Two of this collection, Johnson tackles the years that left the strongest imprint on so many of us, the worst years of the AIDS crisis. His impressions are from the battle-fatigued bastion that was San Francisco of the eighties well into the nineties. Johnson lost the love of his life to the plague in 1990 and that seminal event cleaves this period for him. In one of the most touching stories of the plague that I’ve read, he describes a physical encounter shortly after the death of his own lover with another man about to lose his own. Needing to reach out to someone sexually they could only do so when the comfort of someone else who understood their pain and feelings of loss was on offer.
Johnson’s writing on AIDS spans time even in this collection, but the pieces he wrote most recently, as many here were, that are clearest and strongest. I was reminded of a friend who’s an incredible writer for whom it was impossible, for years, to write about AIDS, the subject that he was most compelled to write about. It’s only with some time and some distance that he could do it so beautifully. It seems this distance and perspective may have produced Johnson’s best work on the subject although he has been writing of it for some time, including a 1996 memoir of his lover’s death, The Geography of the Heart. There is so much in this collection of essays, but it is definitely AIDS that is dealt with most adroitly and with the most feeling.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.