A traumatized widower is painfully and gradually recalled to life in this deceptively simple—and surprisingly absorbing—short novel by the well-known poet and author (Already Dead, 1997, etc.).
Narrator Michael Reed is a freelance writer and teacher of history who’s attempting to lose himself in work—and various degrees of intimacy with colleagues (at a nameless midwestern college where he had recently put down roots) and random acquaintances—after his young wife and small daughter are killed in an automobile accident. Johnson precisely delineates how Michael experiences and absorbs “little” everyday manifestations of survival and commitment—in such nonspecific ephemera as the carnival atmosphere of student life (“whoops and laughter like the cries of wildlife”), a shoe shine, an impulsive visit to a strip joint, even a quiet few moments at a religious fellowship’s “Sing Night,” where he observes a dreamy deaf boy who seemingly “hears” the music. We gradually understand how he saves himself by becoming interested and—albeit only marginally—involved in other people’s lives, particularly that of the improbably named Flower Cannon, a cellist and sexual iconoclast who fascinates him “Because you do crazy things without having to be crazy.” Reed in fact goes beyond the pale himself, in climactic acts of vandalism and irresponsibility that seem (a bit less believably, here) to incarnate his rediscovery of the power of simple actions to move us, and moderate the grief that accompanies “the understanding that everything passes away.” This deft novel pretty much defies summary, but its clear, dispassionate gaze shows us both unassumingly quotidian and willfully bizarre situations and actions as credible, even reasonable expressions of its characters’ outward impulses and inner natures.
A new wrinkle on the overworked contemporary theme of lives lived on the edge, and one of Johnson’s most interesting books.