JESUS' SON

STORIES

Johnson (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, 1991; Fiskadoro, 1985 etc.) brings together eleven down-and-out stories linked by their disagreeable narrator—a lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption. Gobbling whatever drugs he can, the nameless narrator witnesses a fatal car wreck while hitchhiking and experiences a strange euphoria. His highs can be sharp, edgy, and intense, resulting in casual violence and emotional disconnectedness (``Dundun''); or sluggish, as he threatens to nod out before our eyes. At a local gin mill (``Out on Bail'') with his fellow losers, he ponders arbitrary fate among those who fancy themselves ``tragic'' and ``helpless.'' After shooting heroin with his girlfriend at a Holiday Inn, he finds his ``mother'' in an angelic barmaid (``Work''). There's plenty of drug-induced surrealism as well: a stranger, feigning muteness, hitches a ride (``Two Men''); a man walks into an emergency room with a knife stuck in his eye (``Emergency''); and a cruising salesman from Ohio pretends to be a Polish immigrant (``The Other Man''). In ``Dirty Wedding,'' the same narrator proves his cowardice and contemptibility while waiting for his girlfriend at an abortion clinic. ``Steady Hands at Seattle General'' transcribes a loopy, poetic dialogue in a detox ward, where the narrator meets someone more jaded and bruised than himself. In recovery, he works part-time at a Phoenix home for the old and hopeless—some so deformed ``they made God look like a senseless maniac.'' While there, he dates a dwarf, takes his Antabuse, and begins peeping on a Mennonite couple who live by his bus stop. All this to remind us that God shows up in all the wrong places, and angels are everywhere. Blunt and gritty: Johnson's beautifully damned stories sing with divine poetry, all the while bludgeoning us with existential reality.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17892-5

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1992

Categories:

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

Categories:

SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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