A writer with deep Appalachian roots rehearses his life story, positioning it under the most exacting of microscopes.
Harper’s contributor Johnson (The Man Who Loved Birds, 2016, etc.), who was born and raised “in the Kentucky Knobs, a westward-flung, northwest-curling finger of the Appalachians,” has a variety of topics on his agenda in these essays, which date to as early as 1989 and as recently as 2016; some appear for the first time here. His dawning awareness that he is gay, the death of his lover to AIDS in 1990 (his most painful memories of this occur in several essays), his struggles with religion (somewhat resolved in recent years), his determination to recognize love as the key to all—these subjects he visits throughout. In another way, Johnson, whose first name came from a Trappist monk who lived near his home, reveals other aspects of his personality and character less directly. Numerous literary allusions, for example, show his wide and eclectic reading. William James, George Eliot, Sophocles, Lewis Thomas, Thomas Merton, Mark Twain, and numerous others rise up continually in his prose to reaffirm or confirm a point, to illustrate, or to summarize. Johnson also evinces a fairly liberal political sensibility, and his 2014 essay on war and pacifism, “Power and Obedience: Restoring Pacifism to American Politics,” reveals the depths of his opposition to war. Johnson writes in a learned, serious, and occasionally erudite style, and he makes little use of irony or humor. Throughout the collection, we infer much about his personal life: his Kentucky boyhood, his undergraduate years at Stanford, and a bit about his teaching. One brief essay, “Witness and Storyteller,” from 2008, is even a tad erotic.
In taut, sometimes-tense prose, Johnson shows us so many varieties of human pain as well as many glimmers of hope.