A third collection from Johnson (Distant Friends, 1990, etc.) offers 13 tight, knowing, well-told stories. The tales are set in the New South, a land of fallen aristocrats and upstart money. It's this incisive presentation of class that lends Johnson's work a certain caustic European tenor, making him sound sometimes like Chekhov, sometimes like Ibsen, often like Cheever or James. In ``A House of Trees,'' a drunken, unemployed father shakes his petulant son out of a tree, crippling him for life; in ``Hemingway's Cats,'' a honeymoon in the Florida Keys is complicated when the bridegroom's father shows up unannounced with some bad news for the bride; and ``In the Deep Woods'' features a financially overwhelmed father groping for recognition in front of an overly sensitive son, this time while hunting. Johnson doesn't limit himself to little boys' yarns, either: ``Scene of the Crime'' finds a daughter avenging herself against her materialistic mother, and ``Little Death'' explores the theme of abortion through the experiences of a homely teenager. The author also showcases an affection for the neo-gothic family so beloved of southern writers: ``Evening at Home'' opens with a minor kitchen accident and closes with a shared, silent sense of grief between father and daughter over how strange Mom has become. Johnson also works some artful variations on the theme of Catholic guilt. ``Sanctity'' dismantles the horrors of a parochial school, while ``Leavetaking,'' with its insightful summary of a crumbling young marriage, reads like early Updike. Then there are the booze stories, such as ``Last Night,'' in which a solitary drinker, who has just gone on the wagon, falls disastrously off when he's forced to spend time with his wine-swilling, duplicitous girlfriend. The Walker Percy-esque title piece is, unfortunately, the weakest, an excuse to muse existential on a chance movie-theater encounter. Exceptionally strong, confident writing from an author who shows his literary roots while gracefully blending ancient anxieties and modern concerns.
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