A posthumous collection of stories from Johnson (The Laughing Monsters, 2014), graceful and death-stalked as his work ever was.
Johnson (1949-2017) is best known for his writing about hard-luck cases—alcoholics, thieves, world-weary soldiers. But this final collection ranges up and down the class ladder; for Johnson, a sense of mortality and a struggle to make sense of our lives knew no demographic boundaries. In the title story, a successful adman nearing retirement offers a series of portraits of dead and disappeared acquaintances to reckon with questions of art, life, and integrity. “Strangler Bob” is a criminal’s account of life in a county jail that’s carried by its seriocomic tone (one fellow inmate recalls his wife and how “I sort of killed her a little bit”) until its knockout closing becomes prophetically biblical. Johnson had a great knack for finding and keeping a story’s narrative spine while writing about lives that are wildly swerving, a sensibility displayed at its best in “The Starlight on Idaho,” about a recovering alcoholic writing a series of letters that reveal his mercurial character and accidental poetry. (“I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go.”) The two closing stories deal with writers whose brilliance and success haven’t guaranteed happiness: a poet in “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” cultivates a mad and expensive conspiracy theory about Elvis Presley’s death, while an aging, ill writer in “Triumph Over the Grave” lives alone and is prone to hallucinations. Whether it’s a motivation to clean up or (more often) a prompt to think about the past, death is always Topic A for these characters. “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead,” one narrator tells us. “But maybe by the time you read it.”
American literature suffered a serious loss with Johnson's death. These final stories underscore what we'll miss.