book by Bret Anthony Johnston
annotation by Kate Maruyama
I enjoy reading short stories in bits, picking up one here or there, completely immersing myself in a world and a set of characters, going back to a novel I’m reading then picking up a different story later. In this fashion, any collection holds up. But the continuous movement of reading one collection, no matter how well wrought, gets wearing. So, in looking at the titles of the stories I’ve just read, what sticks out are the three about Minnie and Lee and the first one, “Waterwalkers.” I know that this latter choice may only be because this first story was the one for which I was the most present; ready to be open to the characters and what the author had to present to me.
But the hurricane, two ex-lovers, ex-spouses, thrown together and capable only of remembering the death of their son which tore them apart, this enormous hurdle they can’t get past; the echo of the storm with the night they lost him. This was a gorgeous piece, totally devastating, yet simple.
The Lee and Minnie stories worked because we were given time to get to know them. One layer of their story would be told, we’d be given a break, taken somewhere else and then brought back to another story. I wondered why he hadn’t written a novel about these two, but I realized that their story would have been too hard to take in one continuous stream. Cancer is ugly, and heavy and overwhelming and pinned down to exact moments, it becomes more manageable. We are introduced to the two in a desperate attempt to score Minnie some Demerol at the hospital for a debilitating migraine. Minnie’s point of view is full of spirit and humor and the urgency of the migraine puts a bomb under the stands to raise the stakes. Lee’s concern and patience shows us his character in action and foreshadows the ordeals he must undertake ahead of him…and how he will deal with them. Johnston is careful to weave in moments from other parts of our characters’ lives, so that we aren’t numbed by their immediate circumstances. He also weaves some humor into his telling, those everyday absurdities that make life more real.
Johnston is also good at the element of surprise: Both Minnie and Lee are hiding things from each other, and frequently Johnston withholds what it is that they are hiding until just the right moment to spring it on the reader. Lee is carrying around the dreadful secret of Minnie’s diagnosis, but at the end of that story we find that Minnie knew all along. Minnie’s framing her afternoon around a picnic by the duck pond and Lee discourages her from going: only at the end of that story do we learn that the duck pond was filled in years before, a fact that Minnie’s brain tumors have erased. Throughout their shared story, I kept hoping we wouldn’t have to go through the drudgery of those last days, in which so many authors get lost. But again, we took a break…a several story break, and Johnston brings us back at the end. Minnie is in terrible shape, but he levies this part of the story with Lee’s hope over seeing an old girlfriend, intercutting with her funeral, making it all more manageable, and more poignant for not being so numbing. Totally artful.
I didn’t connect with several of the stories, I could not tell, again, if it was my reading them in a row or a disconnect with the characters. To me, “Two Liars” felt disorienting and detached. I understand that it was shown through the kid’s uncomprehending eyes, but I felt his voice kept me from what was really going on with the parents. While there was plenty to infer, I couldn’t help but yearn for their point of view in their nonsensical behavior. “Anything that Floats” had an interesting situation, but, again, I couldn’t connect. I didn’t understand what the lover, Gil, wanted in his conversations with the boy; or in his relationship with his mother. The mother was better defined, but I felt another layer could have been pulled back to get a lively dynamic going between the three of them which I felt was lacking. Here we kept flashing back to the husband, but instead of becoming part of the larger story, it felt more like a distraction and the story for me became like a dream you can’t remember the morning after as you try to reach desperately for its central purpose.
I am challenged and frightened by short stories, still, and work much more easily in the long form. But I keep whacking away at them. These languorous, narrative Iowa-school stories don’t reach me in the same way as the more immediate and bizarre stories do. While I enjoyed reading Corpus Christi, these stories felt like mini-novels. I go more for the idea of short stories as more akin to poetry or songs. I prefer the sharper, briefer ones, and, unfortunately, I do like them with a bit of sass. Capote’s “Children on their Birthdays” (“Yesterday afternoon, the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit.” Gotta love that opening line) or “My Side of the Matter”, David Sedaris, fiction and non-fiction stories, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son…every single one of his stories popped off the page, took you somewhere funky and interesting and was deeply stirring without weeping openly. Lorrie Moore paints many of her stories, playing with words. She’s always saying something, never boring. Amy Hempel has taken the short story somewhere else entirely and, as a writer, I can only hope for the lifelong journey to somewhere original that she has enjoyed.
And I am still here, stabbing in the dark. All I can do is wait for the story to speak and see what form it will take. What I find most interesting is that in the four stories I’ve worked on so far, each of them has taken on a different pace, tone and shape. And each definitely has a different voice. In a way it is freeing, I can’t hurt anything by messing around with a few thousand words…but I’ll keep whacking and see where it leads me.