A modern master’s latest array of glittering tales offers the pleasures and solace of storytelling.
This is Johnson’s (The Way of the Writer, 2016, etc.) fourth collection, and as before, his stories can be as morally instructive as fables, as fancifully ingenious as Twilight Zone scripts, and as elegantly inscrutable as Zen riddles. In stories such as “The Weave,” in which a stylist seeks revenge by stealing valuable hair extensions from her former employer, and “Occupying Arthur Whitfield," in which a cab driver intends to commit larceny upon a seemingly truculent passenger, Johnson imparts wisdom with cunningly selective detail in both character and milieu; he can evoke the lingering residue of chemicals in the vacant beauty shop with just a few lines. Johnson is in immaculate control of the stories’ myriad settings, as in the ancient Greece of “The Cynic,” where Plato is dislodged from his smug certainties by Diogenes’ bug-eyed eccentricities. Johnson’s philosophical and spiritual erudition, most prominently displayed in such novels as Oxherding Tale (1982) and Dreamer (1998), also insinuates itself in to “Prince of the Ascetics,” in which a Buddhist monk discovers a “middle way,” and “Idols of the Cave,” in which a Muslim-American soldier’s conflict with a bigoted white officer while stationed in Afghanistan climaxes in the ruins of an ancient library. Johnson's whimsical side comes through in “Guinea Pig,” which extracts deeper tones and craftier implications from the hoary old science-fiction subgenre of “personality transfer.” The title story is in many ways the book’s most distinctive: It takes the form of a late-night conversation between the author and his late friend and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson in the coffee shops and bars of Johnson’s Seattle hometown. Even here, there’s an unexpected twist, but, as with the other tales, what’s even more unexpected is how this startling development emerges with such unassuming control.
It’s gratifying to put yourself in the hands of a veteran storyteller who knows what he’s doing—and is quietly secure in what he’s teaching.