Corpus Christi
 by Bret Anthony Johnston

Random House
2005
First Collection

Awards: Best Book of the Year, The Independent and The Irish Times, The Southern Review's Annual Short Fiction award, The Texas Institute of Letters' Debut Ficiton award, The Christopher Isherwood Prize, The James Michener Fellowship







"A flow of memory rushed just beneath the waking world, like a frozen-over stream; if he wanted, he could punch through the ice and let the current drag him under."


Reviewed by Patti Jazanoski

Bret Anthony Johnston has a lesson for every short story writer who's been told to cut the backstory. His collection, Corpus Christi, doesn’t shy away from backstory but gives ten examples of how to do it right. Set in a town often hit by hurricanes, these stories show characters living in the eye of their own personal crises, in the fragile moments when their lives are coming apart. Some characters are stuck and unable to move forward. Others stand on the cusp of imminent loss, unable to forge a different future. Each story has a clearly established front story and the frequent flashback scenes do more than provide backstory. They show how the characters’ lives and actions are shaped by the lingering, unforgiving past.

The first story, Waterwalkers, opens with a man working at a hardware store as the town prepares for the arrival of a hurricane. Across the store, a woman asks for plywood but the store had sold out days before. At first the protagonist doesn’t recognize the woman, though he feels drawn to her. Then he realizes it’s his ex-wife, in town house-sitting for her sister. The protagonist goes to her, gives her his own supply of wood, and helps prepare the home. He’s surrounded by memories as he thinks about their young son who suddenly died and how their marriage never recovered. Now, they prepare the sister’s home and catch up on their current lives, but they never discuss their loss. They’re both in limbo, waiting for a storm that may or may not arrive.

A fourteen-year-old boy is the protagonist of In the Tall Grass and he watches as his parents struggle with problems and respond in ways that make things worse. The boy sees his father kick a man’s bad knee, possibly crippling him for life. When they return home, his mother is waiting on the front porch in her bathrobe, along with the police. His father is arrested and taken away. His mother says she doesn’t want to know what happened.
"It’s hard to know your parents. Both of mine had affairs." She glanced at me. "Can I say that in front of you?"
The boy doesn’t tell his mother that his father has been fired from his job, even while she continues to divulge secrets of her own parents. She muses, "I wonder what you don’t know about me."

The family is on the path to great loss, everyone can feel it, but the parents aren’t taking the right actions to stop it. These scenes show the moments when the parents change their relationship to their son, divulging information to him that they are withholding from each other. It’s a meaty, emotionally difficult situation for everyone, and the burden falls on the boy who wants to stop the storm that would soon overwhelm them all.

What’s most interesting in the collection is how Johnston structures the stories. Since the front stories are so heavily influenced by the past, the characters’ entire lives are potential material that could be plucked and placed into the story. The decision for Johnston when composing a story is choosing what to select and what to leave out. The flashback scenes carry significant emotional weight. The flip side is that the front story plotlines tend to be short, in terms of the number of scenes and actions that take place. This makes the stories feel moody and sometimes slow moving, rather than suspenseful. While readers care about the characters, there are few instances where they wonder whether the outcome will be good. Readers know it’s a sad story. The question is which flavor of sadness.

This careful choosing of backstory scenes is perhaps most evident in the trilogy of stories about Minnie Marshall and her adult son Lee. He lives in St. Louis but has moved home for a year to care for her while she battles cancer. Time shifts back and forth within each story and between the three stories. In the hands of another writer, this same material could have been developed into one long story—perhaps a novella—but readers would lose the focus that three individual stories bring.

In the first, I See Something You Don’t See, Minnie’s cancer is in remission, she’s resuming her life, and Lee is preparing to move back to St. Louis. But Lee learns some news that changes his plans. He chooses to stay but withholds important information from her, adding more tension to an already strained relationship. In The Widow, Minnie thinks back to the time when she was young and newly married, before Lee was born. She’s also preparing arrangements for her own funeral, selecting the casket and making arrangements, while thinking about her husband’s funeral. These are difficult situations for both mother and son, and the details of daily life show that they’ve never been close. He’s been distant—emotionally, geographically—and as a mother she’s never known how to reach him. Yet in these final days they proceed as best they can, in what they talk about and what they avoid.

The last story in the trilogy, Buy for Me the Rain, plays with the relationship of memories. While Lee is preparing for Minnie’s funeral, he’s thinking about his ex-flame Moira who is returning home to see him. He admits to himself that, “when his mother was dying, his heart had leapt because he knew Moira would come back.” As he goes through the motions of the actual burial he alternates between remembering the last days of his mother’s life and memories of Moira. When Moira appears—very late—she’s not apologetic but boldly tells stories of her current life in Europe. She’s not living in the past. Later she drives Lee home and makes love to him because she doesn’t want him to be alone. Of course he knows she’ll leave again, but after she’s fallen asleep, he creeps out of bed and back to the room where his mother died. He’s ready to face and remember those final moments with her.

One of the author’s writerly tics is that most pieces start in front story, weave between the past and present and then end on a particularly dramatic scene from the past. In Waterwalkers, the first story of the couple who divorced after their son’s death, the characters don’t talk about their shared past, though the memories run through the protagonist’s mind. At story’s end, his wife admits that she’d been looking for him. “I know,” he says, surprising himself. Then he thinks back to their last good time together as a family, on a ferry, just days before their son left for camp and became suddenly sick. The protagonist remembers thinking—even then—that it will be a moment they’d want to remember and might tell their son’s children someday. They’d been happy then, thinking to the future. Now, weighed down by loss and sadness, they are waterlogged, slogging through the present and constantly re-treading the past.


Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on NEA.org


Patti Jazanoski's fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Opium Magazine, Monkeybicycle, the international anthology 100 Stories for Haiti, and elsewhere. She was finalist in the Binnacle Ultra-Short Competition. An MFA student in the Bennington Writing Seminars, she’s currently working on a collection of linked stories.
                     
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Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work appears in magazines such as The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The Oxford American, and Tin House. He is a graduate of Miami University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the recipient of the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. He has written essays for Slate.com and is a regular contributor to NPR's All Things Considered. In 2006, the National Book Foundation honored him with a new National Book Award for writers under 35. A skateboarder for almost twenty years, he is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard and teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Read an interview with Bret Anthony Johnston