More of This World or Maybe Another
by Barb Johnson
Book Website on FAcebook
2010 Cork City-Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, 2010
Story prize, 2009 Barnes and Noble Discover Finalist
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
with Barb Johnson
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
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
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.
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.