From the latest Flannery O’Connor Award winner, a debut collection of nine stories mainly about being young and black in southern California.
All are told in the first person, usually by young middle-class black women who find themselves in intimate relationships with non-blacks. In the opener, “Melvin in the Sixth Grade,” 11-year-old Avery moves from inner-city L.A. to the suburbs, where she develops a crush on class maverick Melvin Bukeford, himself a recent transplant from Oklahoma, “sporting a crew cut in 1981 when everyone else had long scraggly hair like the guys in Judas Priest or Journey.” As the only black girl in the class, Avery forges a bond with her Oklahoman fellow outsider, only to have this bond tested when the crowd turns against Melvin. Avery returns in the final story, “Markers,” where she’s back in L.A., in her late 20s, married to a wealthy Italian chef and making periodic visits to the suburbs to help her lonely middle-aged mother. In this, perhaps the strongest entry, Avery is stranded in a no-man’s-land between two worlds: her mother’s, which she can never return to, and her husband’s, to which she can never really hope to belong. This kind of deracination is shared by many here: the former stripper from “Break Any Woman Down,” whose relationship with a Greek porno actor is ruined by her well-intended affection for his friend; the photo-lab clerk in “Clay’s Thinking,” who gets in over his head with a wealthy executive woman; and the middle-aged woman from “Bars,” who has an unfortunate encounter with a man she met in a chat room. Johnson’s narrators are sympathetic and engaging, but the tales rely so heavily on vocal performances, with correspondingly less emphasis on plot or emotional movement, that they sometimes seem more like voice-riffs than full stories.
Still, a subtle and sometimes compelling vision of Los Angeleno life.