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Anyone who has been worrying about the current state of fiction or who has any questions about why that matters should read More of This World or Maybe Another, a new collection of short stories by Barb Johnson. Reading these stories feels like falling in love with the whole brutal world again. Johnson brings a killer sense of humor, a spectacular way with narrative, and what I’ve got to flat-out call wisdom to this, her first book.
One of the stories, about the family life of a guitar player who put a lot of feeling into his music until he had to quit his band, is called “Killer Heart.” It includes a wrenching death. Every single story delivers everything it promises and more than a reader could have admitted to needing until the writing touched just that one hidden nerve.
The book is set in Louisiana, following Delia and her brother Dooley across time and through linked stories from growing up in a small town dominated by the enormous flame of the natural gas refinery and rows of oil tanks that the kids call Emerald City to adult lives that center around a laundromat which Delia comes to own in New Orleans.
Other characters, Pudge and Luis, who live near the laundromat, wander in and out of Delia and Dooley’s stories and are at the center of their own. From the abandoned BMW with the bullet hole in the windshield that Luis sleeps in to the hopeful light from the laundromat’s snack machine to Dooley and his mother watching Mass on TV, every detail feels both dead-on in its evocation of place and alive with meaning.
It has been a long time since I’ve been gripped with such a satisfying sense of pleasure and danger (the phrase comes from the title of an anthology about female sexuality that broke ground in the 1980s) in fictional explorations of lesbian lives. Delia’s relationships make very clear how much yearning matters, and that both wanting and getting have risks. In the first paragraph of the title story, teenaged Delia, going to a dance at the gym, walks past a line of boys “installed on the railing under the long breezeway like they’re at a livestock auction, cans of Skoal wearing their way through back pockets. ” Delia, who shoots them the bird “for the entire fifty-foot walk” has a compelling way of carrying herself. Inside the gym, she spots her best friend’s sister, Chuck, who is “like a bright red engine light in a dark car for how she can get your full attention without making a sound. Everyone knows she keeps a switchblade in one of her boots.” The intensity of the story’s invocation of young desire just doesn’t quit, and the automotive imagery as they decide to take the drive to Emerald City does a perfect slow burn: “She can feel the place where Chuck touched her leg, as though she’s been stamped with the heated coil of a car’s cigarette lighter instead of the wrinkled tip of Chuck’s stubby finger.”
One of the things that two young women old enough to drive might find to do in an empty oil tank involves Clackers, the child’s toy from the seventies consisting of two balls of hard plastic on a string (in the highly entertaining glossary at the back of the book, the relevant entry is titled “Clackers: Innocent Fun or Pure Evil?”). Climb the stairs and go into the door of the dark, empty (they hope) tank. Then: “ Turn the flashlight off and smack the Clackers together – click-clack, click-clack—until the high, sharp echo shakes you loose from yourself and lifts you up out of this world and into another.” That image is one good way to remember the name of this book. And believe me, you want to remember the name of this book.
The yearnings in these stories are not confined to sex or to the young, although the dangerous courage of children pushed to the edge is a theme that Johnson approaches repeatedly with unforgettable power. Dooley, Pudge and Luis all grapple as little boys with links between manhood and violence. The sense of responsibility a child feel s toward a mother who can’t take care of herself is evoked with seriousness and subtlety. War makes the photos of neighborhood men disappear from the laundromat for use in memorial services, and those men who make it back come home hurt. A fat boy in an aspirational too-tight shirt is called titty baby, and his grief matters. He is comforted by his aunt’s partner, Big Luce, who sweeps a pile of flowers off an outdoor table and offers to spin one across his closed eyes. Every story is full of moments with this much grace, along with sharp, funny observations, like the one about Pudge’s sister, a teacher at a community college, who has “got two settings: complain and instruct. She doesn’t need an audience for either one.”
I love this book’s depictions of mature love. Delia and her partner Maggie grapple with the emotional nuances of betrayal in such a flawed, recognizable, valiant way. Everybody we care about in these stories stumbles and tries. Culpability is included as part of the human condition. Getting ready for an emotionally fraught anniversary party, Delia thinks:
There’s real trouble in the world. The kind that can’t be fixed. The kind we lie awake keeping vigil against. Love is not trouble. It is all we have to light our days, to bring music to the time we’ve been given.
In this book, the music is earned by muscular language, empathy and emotional courage. The writing alone is a rare, sweet joy. Like a drop of water from Delia’s leaky faucet, each story in this brilliant collection breaks open in a fit of shine.
MORE OF THIS WORLD OR MAYBE ANOTHER
By Barb Johnson
Paperback, 208p, $13.99