Review by Paul Fuhr
There’s a moment midway through R. Dean Johnson’s Californium (Plume Books, 2016) where the novel’s teenage protagonists are comparing the logo of their new punk band to the iconic ones from the legendary bands before them: “Pretty soon, all we’ll need is the top part. Like how people know it’s the Dead Kennedys just by seeing the tomahawk or the Clash when all they see is the guy bent over, smashing his guitar.” It’s a moment that speaks to how emblems, symbols and patterns embed themselves in our consciousness and stay there, triggering instant recall upon seeing them. This is also true of Johnson’s writing: the longer you stay steeped in his words (SoCal, circa 1980), the longer it stays with you and the faster you identify with it. Johnson’s characters—Reece, Keith and Treat—join forces against the headwind of adolescence through the shared love of punk rock. Californium comes alive through its obsession with detail—not simply in how precisely Johnson evokes the era and locale, but in how details are vitally important to every single character. They burn calories over more than just their logo and name (DikNixon)—they obsess over what they’re wearing, what they’re saying, and who isn’t talking to them before they form their band. Everyone in Californium, right down to the periodic element chart that dominates Mr. Krueger’s science class, is governed by the details of their lives. Whether they’re inspired by the little things or somehow haunted by them, the characters of Johnson’s novel are always focused on what’s right in front of them when they’re all pretending to see a much larger world.
Californium takes its name from the chemical element—one that also just so happens to be engineered in a lab. It’s easy to draw parallels between that and how fourteen-year-old Reece, who’s been recently transplanted from New Jersey, perceives his world and how real it actually is. In his new home of Yorba Linda, California, everything seems as plastic as it does temporary. But just as the novel comments on how California is nothing without its surface details and lens-flare brightness, comparisons between the novel and its namesake element actually go much deeper. Reece’s band generates excited whispers without so much a live show under its belt. And yet, that buzz is everything and nothing at the same time—it’s a currency that pays off in more ways than one by the novel’s end. Just as californium is one of the few elements that has practical applications, so too does the unique power of American youth and the consistent inconsistency of punk music. Reece and his new friends go places that are very real through talents that are artificial at best. Johnson has woven a narrative that’s confident and leisurely by equal measure. In fact, Californium is so finely tuned and beautifully structured that it’s easy to get distracted by how effortless Johnson makes it all seem. It’s a novel that welcomes readers into a world that’s both bracingly familiar and quietly unsettling which, of course, is exactly what it’s like to be fourteen years old.
Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio. He is a writer on addiction and recovery for AfterParty Magazine. He’s also the host of a weekly podcast (Fuhrious) and the author of the biography Mohawk.