book by Bret Anthony Johnston
annotation by Kate Maruyama
Corpus Christi is a collection of ten short stories set it or around Corpus Christi, Texas. There are actual and emotional storms in stories that are united not only in their setting, but the strain of melancholy that runs through them. The stories are well-crafted, more at the micro than the macro level. My only complaint is that the tone is almost unrelentingly depressive. There are sparks of humor, but they quickly die. Characters reappear, a woman gets the news of cancer in one story and dies from it in the last in the collection.
For whatever reason, I tend to forget the difference between reading a novel and reading a short story, that is, until I’m in the middle of a short story collection. It’s easier to get lost in the experience of a novel, but, for me at least, short stories are demanding and require a unique concentration. They are not a relaxing art form. Johnston is not as lyrical as some, but I enjoyed the way he placed his modifiers and did not go for the obvious simile or metaphor. He didn’t describe the water as a sapphire, but that it reflected light like a sapphire. “A breeze riffles the dried-up crape myrtle on the fence, and with the clouds dispersing, the sun casts a harsh ivory low on the bricks around the pool; the water catches the light like a sapphire.” It is a much better and fresher way of writing. Instead of direct comparison, I will explore secondary effects like the way the original object of the simile, etc. interacts with the world, find a secondary image and build around that. That revelation alone to use as another writing tool was worth the price of admission.
There is a lot of death throughout as one might expect from a work titled not only for the place, but which also translates as the ‘body of Christ.’ In “Anything That Floats,” a crucifix is noted: “Tyler tips his head to his shoulder, apologetically. A small crucifix – a gift from Vince’s father – hangs on the thing chain around his neck.” In the next story, “Birds of Paradise,” the cross is empty: “Fancy eventually shook off the officer’s hand and came to sit on the bench beside me. She had brushed her hair and put on makeup, and a thin gold chain with a little cross pendant hung around her neck.” This mirrors the references to the city of Corpus Christi, that begin with the full name and is shortened to Corpus. ‘Christi,’ like Christ on the cross, disappears. Little details like these kept me engaged.
Overall, the pacing was uneven as was the arc of the collection as a whole. There was also a problem of sorts with Minnie’s death. The three stories involving Minnie and her son, Lee, were fine and her death was very explicit. I felt like I was in the room and Johnston nailed the details of the death process without being too showy or morbid about it. However, because of that very detail, the three stories overshadow the rest of the collection – more specifically, the mother/widow’s death overshadows the (arguably) more tragic death of a child in “Waterwalkers.” That tragedy fades and it seems like it should have haunted this assortment of stories to a greater degree. The overriding impression is that the author was simply more familiar with the death of a parent than the death of a child. True, parents often go their separate ways after the death of their child, but there was some emotional component beyond the loss of the marriage that Johnston did not fully capture. Similarly, the first story begins with hurricane preparations, but the hurricane is soon forgotten and the weather is barely noted in other stories. It would have been a nice thread along with the setting to unify beyond theme and setting. In the end, it is a well-written and flawed collection from a writer with a lot of promise.