It has been a while since either of us read a short story collection as good as Barb Johnson’s More Of This World Or Maybe Another. Her characters are all rough-edged members of the underclass, pure of heart but broken in unrepairable ways by life, family and most of all themselves. Johnson’s own story mirrors many of her characters’ — she grew up in rural Louisiana, wanted to get out of her hometown and moved to New York, where she says she “got most of my education by taking the train into the city.” Walking around Manhattan, she says, “I tried to affect sophistication, but I hadn’t quite mastered the lack of eye contact that is the hallmark of city dwellers. This made me a magnet for the unhinged, who hunger to be looked at directly now and then, and I was happy to receive their strange lessons.”
The unhinged dominate most of the stories in the collection; what’s frightening is just how recognizable Johnson makes them. She can deliver sentences that snap: Of a swaggering teenage boy she says, “He acts like the whole world is his to comment on”; of a sweet-hearted but dense boy named Pudge, “Sometimes people are kidding, but Pudge doesn’t catch on in time.” The matter-of-factness of her writing can distill great tragedy into blunt understatement: “Dooley’s mama lost a baby a month ago, and she’s been sleeping a lot since then.”
The stories would risk veering into unbearably bleak territory if Johnson wasn’t so funny. Take, for example, a girl named Renee confessing to another named Delia that she “finally lost her virginity.”
“Can you believe it?” Why wouldn’t Delia believe it? It’s cause and effect. If you have sex, you lose your virginity. “It’s really beautiful,” Renee went on in her new prissy-wise voice. “You’ll see.” All the way to school, Delia thought about that phrase, about “letting” someone go all the way. It made sex sound like something Renee had to put up with instead of enjoy. Like how Delia dressed in three heavy coats one Christmas and “let” Pooky Langlois shoot at her with his new BB gun. Pooky gave her five dollars, so it was worth it. She wonders what Renee got.
Finally, the stories all have beautiful endings — even, or especially, the violent ones ( “If The Holy Spirit Comes For You” being the most heartbreaking of the bunch). (And even the ones that end with a man clipping his toenails.) There’s a quality of the grotesque in these stories not unlike Flannery O’Connor’s, with a note of redemption too.
This is criminally late notice, but you can hear Barb Johnson read from the collection tonight at seven o’clock at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.