More of This World or Maybe Another
 by Barb Johnson

Harper Perennial
2009, Paperback
First collection

Book Website on FAcebook

Longlisted, 2010 Cork City-Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, 2010 Story prize, 2009 Barnes and Noble Discover Finalist

Barb Johnson hails from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Though she showed promise as a writer while an undergraduate, she made her living in New Orleans as a house painter and then a carpenter for twenty years before beginning an MFA program a year before Katrina hit. She has won awards from Glimmer Train and Washington Square, as well as a grant from the A Room of Her Own Foundation.

Read an interview with Barb Johnson







"According to her high school teachers, Delia has two main talents: fixing mechanical things and being a smart aleck. Neither would serve a young lady very well, the teachers said. Who you calling a lady, Delia always said back."

Reviewed by Scott Doyle


More of This World or Maybe Another is a slender, promising collection of linked stories from a writer who charts her characters' inner struggles with great empathy and nuance.

One thing we get from these stories is a fresh portrayal of New Orleans. First, we encounter a resolutely working-class New Orleans, with none of the accoutrements we might expect: no French Quarter, no Mardi Gras, no Preservation Hall jazz. We also get a sense of how the city sits more broadly in Louisiana as a whole. New Orleans is such a singular presence on the American scene that it is rarely presented in context. But here, in a couple of crucial early stories, we glimpse the small-town life outside New Orleans: where some of our protagonists, because of sexual orientation or sensibility or both, don't quite fit. It's implied, but never stated, that New Orleans and its mongrel diversity stands as a beacon on the horizon for such folk; and we find out in an afterward that this is the geography from which the author herself hails. Interestingly, though most of the stories were written post-Katrina, the author wisely refrains from openly tapping into the storm and all its drama and emotional pull; and yet, its ghost lingers.

Johnson's great strength as a writer is her ability to inhabit her protagonists' consciousness, and to do so with a language and music appropriate to them. Staring into the "black-black eyes" of an early female crush, Delia (the central character, and the eventual owner of a New Orleans laundromat that will prove to be a hub for many of these stories) experiences "a feeling like driving without headlights at night, like speeding down one of the mile roads that separate the rice fields at the edge of town where she lives." In another story, Dooley (another small-town misfit who will later move to the big city) watches his hunting-loving uncles prepare for a roast in a passage worth quoting at length:
"The uncles move together in a way that makes Dooley think about the inside of the clock on the mantelpiece, the one he took apart just to see what made it go. Everything inside a clock depends on everything else, and all of it has to keep moving. For days after he took it apart, Dooley couldn't pass the mantelpiece without thinking about the endlessly rocking cogs and how that quiet clock had so much movement inside it."
And finally, as Delia moves closer to her future partner Maggie, a moment that wonderfully captures these stories' particular working-class sensibility. Not yet together, the two toast: "When they toast, the glasses ring with a long, clear tone. Crystal. It dawns on her just this minute what the expression 'crystal clear' means and why crystal is better than regular glass."

The flip-side of this strength (essentially, the ability to deliver individual moments) is a corresponding lack of narrative drive and tension in some stories. I'm a believer in the so-called "quiet" short story (see my review of Alix Ohlin's Babylon & Other Stories). But in the best of such stories there is still a sense of things coming to a head, of circumstance closing in on the characters, of fate getting ready to have its say—and that sense is lacking in some of the stories here. This is particularly noticeable in The Invitation, the longest story in the collection. However lovingly the prose paints Delia and Maggie as they near a problematic anniversary, the story relies too heavily on inner thoughts, psychologizing where it should dramatize. There's simply not enough story there.

Hand-in-hand with this lack of narrative drive is a problem, at times, with endings. Johnson favors oblique endings, and though I admire her unwillingness to wrap things up neatly, there's an evasiveness in some of the endings here. There's a difference between an ending that holds a certain mystery and one that simply withholds.

If the Holy Spirit Comes for You avoids these pitfalls, nailing both a compelling dramatic tension and a sure-footed ending. Here, we sense Dooley's inner struggle (wrestling with the morality of killing animals) and the outer plot on a head-long collision course. And though the camera pulls away at the last moment, the final image wonderfully, if indirectly, refracts the story's emotional center. The ending of St. Luis of Palmyra is also successfully oblique—though it withholds to a point, we can see well enough where things are heading, and here too the final passage artfully resonates with the rest of the story. What Was Left exhibits another strong ending.

In keeping with the well-chosen title of this collection, spirituality, and a tension between this world and a higher realm, is a running concern in these stories. Both Holy Spirit and St. Luis feature young male protagonists struggling to shape a private morality under challenging circumstances. In the latter, Luis re-imagines the ideal saint as a bad-ass who can "handle his business." In both stories, the characters' moral struggle revolves in part around the question of what it means to be a man; two of the book's characters must negotiate volatile father figures.

The prose is often quite lovely, but the lyricism is natural and unforced, rooted in a close observation of the physical world. Johnson is adept at drawing resonance from simple things like a crack in a windshield, or the light thrown off by a snack machine. All of the stories are written in present tense, which this reader finds wearying. I know writers and readers disagree on the use or overuse of the present tense. But one of fiction's great strengths is its ability to explore the nature of memory—a texture, it seems to me, flattened out in present tense stories.

Finally, kudos to Harper Perennial, a major publishing house making a renewed commitment to the short story. They've been putting out a bunch of collections—some from new voices like Barb Johnson, some rediscovered classics. You can get a taste of both at their companion website Fiftytwostories.com. And though I'm not a fan of the book group discussion guides some publishers include nowadays, with Johnson's book Harper offers a different way to deepen a reader's relationship with an author: an attractive P.S. section with "Insights, Interviews & More"—welcome background info that doesn't tell you what to think about the book.



Read a story from this collection on FiftyTwoStories.com


Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction. He has a story in the current issue of Confrontation, and has previously been published in Night Train, New Madrid, and Sotto Voce among other places. He is at work on a novel-in-stories..

Scott's other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

"Visiting Hours" edited by Dan Wickett

"Dead Boys" by Richard Lange
                     
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