Friday, August 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Parasites' blazes a trail in apocalyptic comedy

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Adam Johnson reads from "Parasites Like Us" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600).

There is no one else right now writing quite the way Adam Johnson writes. In his debut collection from a couple of years back, "Emporium," Johnson set his stories of teenage snipers and bulletproof-vest outlet stores in the near future. His five-minutes-from-now strategy allowed him to forge a funky new science fiction that was part irony and part pure dread. In his first novel, "Parasites Like Us," (Viking, $24.95) everyone's apocalyptic fears are horribly realized.

Narrator Hank Hannah is a professor of anthropology at The University of Southeastern South Dakota who has made his name studying the Clovis people, "the first humans to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia about twelve thousand years ago. As you know, the Clovis colonized a hemisphere that had never seen humans before."

His star student, Eggers, is conducting his research by living as a Clovis for a year: camping in the quad, dressing in fur pelts, trapping and eating all the squirrels on campus. Hannah, Eggers and another grad student named Trudy discover a cache of Clovis artifacts on the edge of town near the Indian casino and unwittingly unleash a virulent plague with catastrophic effects. Johnson gleefully teases this event throughout the book, with such goofy foreshadowing as: "At that point in my life, I had yet to become intimate with the husking sound an animal sternum makes when it's cracked wide." Johnson's tone is antic, scary, ironic, but underlined with an earnest questioning. Hannah asks: "Can people just vanish? What makes them leave? Where do they go?" Johnson sets out to make his narrator experience what the Clovis experienced millennia earlier: an empty continent.

We tire of the author's obsessions before he does, but, even so, this apocalyptic comedy bristles with ambition. The humans in "Parasites Like Us" might be witnessing the end of their race, but Johnson is a writer who's here to stay.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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