“Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return”

Samuel Johnson

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Martin Riker’s debut novel, released in 2018. I read a first edition Coffee House Press edition from the library. Between this and Comemadre, I’m ready to read anything Coffee House Press puts out.

Buy the Book!  

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

After his murder, Samuel Johnson’s consciousness begins the strange process of moving into the nearest human body when the last one passes.

I had a great time with Samuel Johnson but it hit a personal sweet spot that isn’t for everyone (think Theophilus North mixed with Cloud Atlas) – an episodic novel with a narrator who goes on tangents and wanders around the point and doesn’t address your questions for quite some time, if ever. It’s meandering; you have to enjoy Samuel’s company to enjoy the book, and I found him and his situation interesting.

Riker smartly doesn’t try to overexplain the predicament his narrator is in: Samuel cannot communicate with his host directly; he sees through their eyes and hears with their ears but cannot taste or smell. Eventually, he learns of ways to get into the driver’s seat, so to speak, but it’s ill-defined. If that description is annoying to you or if you’re entering this book hoping that the rules will be fully explained and make sense, walk away. The logic holes in this story can be large but approached as a fable, it’s emotionally rewarding.

Despite the literary, older-styled tone of the narrator (Samuel died in the 1960s, after all), Riker’s vocabulary and references are simple and clear. Even when the story is odd, unbelievable, or ludicrous, I never doubt the reality of the narrator. Samuel Johnson is quickly real and I enjoy listening to him ramble with his dry humor.


Far from escaping society, it seemed, he’d only increased his commute.


[2] References:

Tuesday was Uncle Miltie with Martha Raye.



Uncle Miltie” is another name for Milton Berle (also known as “Mr. Television”).

Martha Raye (1916-1994) was an American comic actress and singer who performed in movies, and later on television. She also acted in plays, including Broadway. From 1954-56, she had her own program, The Martha Raye Show.

[3] Reference:

There was Perry Mason, Dick and the Duchess, and Gunsmoke.



Dick and the Duchess was an American CBS sitcom filmed and set in London, starring Patrick O’Neal and Hazel Court. Twenty-six episodes aired between September 1957 and March 1958.

[4] Reference (real episode?):

I was quite disturbed when that evening’s [Andy Griffith] episode turned out to be largely about guns. It was a bank robbery episode.


The closest episode I can find (from mayberry.fandom.com):

“The Bank Job”

Original airdate: December 24, 1962

Barney gets in a snit over the lax security at the Mayberry Security Bank and decides to prove his point when he slips by the bank teller dressed as a cleaning lady and accidentally locks himself in the vault. Later he is redeemed when real crooks are caught in a failed attempt to rob the bank.


And when the truck then plunged into darkness, it was not the darkness of death, but a darkness with headlights, unless death also had headlights, perhaps it did, how would I know, who’d never before died, who’d barely even lived, and Oh God, I thought, I’m dead


[6] Reference:

The terrible Charonic truck pulled out onto a much larger road.


From dictionary.com:


noun – (Classical Mythology) – the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the dead across the Styx


In fact, now that I think about it, my time with Christopher Plume is probably the worst place to start the tale of my own adventures, aside from the fact that this is where they actually started, since it was easily the dullest episode of my entire afterlife.



But life, I have noticed, only goes around in circles for as long as you don’t want it to. Once you’ve forgotten your aspirations and grown comfortable in your existential inconsequence, life jolts you forward, usually for the worse.



Life, I think, is largely about being bothered.”



“Have I internalized society’s prejudice against solitude that I doubt my own autonomy and place confidence in others, not because they deserve confidence but simply because, being others, they are not me?”



You didn’t think about the future, until one day you did, and then you didn’t think about much else.


[12] Samuel’s narrative is the literary equivalent of thinking out loud. He’s constantly telling us that he’s going to tell us something soon, or later, or should have mentioned it earlier, or should never mention it at all. Some people will find this style tedious, I was endeared.

Now, one thing I should have mentioned earlier, but did not mention earlier because that would have spoiled the effect of mentioning it now, was that during the entire time I spent with Henry, while he was working on his saga, he was still just in his mid thirties.



At which point Phil finally began telling me his plan, which I will hold off recounting, since we eventually went through with it, so you will see what it was in a page or two anyway.



They were not just friends but a particular kind of friends, the kind who know nothing about each other’s lives outside of the one situation in which they see each other, and so allow each other to be whoever they wish to be within the one situation, without having to answer for whoever they are everywhere else.



It was his finest hour, though in true Henry fashion, his finest hour lasted fifteen minutes.



Was that the point to all this? Was there a point to all of this? What was the point to all of this?



She was ancient even then, her spine already bowing. She would grow old, and older still, and all the while her body would continue to fold inward, year after year, as if packing itself up like luggage for a day trip it kept refusing to take.


[17] References:

There was Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap and the bald boss and the blond secretary.



Dr. Johnny Fever is a fictional character on the American television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. He was inspired by Atlanta DJ Skinny Bobby Harper. The character was portrayed by Howard Hesseman.

Venus Flytrap is a character on WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), played by Tim Reid.

[18] References:

The clutter of faces – of Budget Bob and Bobbi Ray, Pat Robertson and Downtown Julie Brown.


Budget Bob is too generic to nail down definitively, but I think Bobbi Ray refers to Bobbi Ray Carter, a long-time home shopping host on HSN. She celebrated 35 years on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) in August 2018.


In general theirs was a hazy, listless life. A life like a noontime nap in a stuffy room with no blinds or curtains, a nap that never quite happens, never quite arrives at rest, yet somehow lasts the entire afternoon.



And isn’t this, in the end, the true plight of the parent (allow me to reveal to you the true plight of the parent), that even when you can do things, there’s nothing you can do?


[21] References:

The doctrine of eternal return originated (…) with the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine.


Heinrich Heine, fittingly, was referenced in Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day (note [150]) and Heaven’s My Destination (note [49]).

Heine (1797-1856) was a German-Jewish poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry. He spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

Eternal return (also known as eternal recurrence) is a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The theory is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. Friedrich Nietzsche connected the thought to many of his other concepts. It has been suggested that Nietzsche may have encountered this idea in the works of Heine.


We considered how eternal return rebukes Christian doctrine, and how the Church, by preaching “progress” toward an “afterlife,” risks devaluing the one life human beings irrefutably have, like skipping midway through a book to get to the end, as if the ending were the point rather than the book.


[23] Reference:

We looked at Heidegger, and other thinkers.



Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher and a seminal thinker in the Continental tradition and philosophical hermeneutics. Heidegger is best known for his contributions to phenomenology and existentialism. Heidegger’s membership in and public support for the Nazi Party has been the subject of widespread controversy regarding the extent to which his Nazism influenced his philosophy.


“Even though I was there, I only really know this story as a story.”



I had been thinking, there in the car, about how strange a thing a goal is, how wonderful and at the same tie unsettling it is to see a goal accomplished. Not disappointing, simply strange.


Recommended for people who like Charlie Kaufman scripts (especially Being John Malkovich), Cloud Atlas or Thornton Wilder. If you like stories off the beaten path and narrators full of personality, give it a shot. But if you’re not engaged around page 40, you’re never going to warm up to it.

Riker doesn’t answer the obvious questions (you will never really know who killed Samuel or why; Samuel is unconcerned with solving that riddle. He never checks on the families of the people he was “with” before, so we do not get resolutions on any of their situations, either).

I also have a feeling it’s a book best read as quickly as possible. If you let this one linger on the night table for too long, you’re going to lose touch. Devour Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return.

Next Friday, Leila Slimani’s first novel, newly translated to English: Adèle.


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