PHYSICAL CULTURE by Hillary Johnson


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In a deft first novel, Johnson takes us inside the ""lonely, atomic brain"" of a middle. aged masochist, walking us through his terrifying memories and dreams. John hides in the bushes at his retirement picnic--the catsup and hot-dog buns remind him of things that have gone bad. For 25 years, he has been a ""Johnny-on-the-spot"" accountant in a suburban mattress-factory, but no one at the company picnic really knows how John sees things--with the possible exception of Liann, an alcoholic machine-operator who drunkenly asks: ""Do you know what it's like to feel your guts?"" John knows. John once let a man wrap his upper body with barbed wire and take him dancing. Afterwards, the man rubbed John's wounds with a mixture of mustard and gunpowder. Thanks to Stephan, a handsome attendant at a gay city gym called Physical Culture, John has had hundreds of such dates. His body is an illegible mass of slashes, colors, and bumps, but John cherishes it as a forbidden text--a black psalm to his terrifying sense of total solitude: ""I want to live as a warm pool for blood--a close, warm, unafraid darkness of blood."" A legend at Physical Culture, John has withdrawn, but Stephan now seeks him out. Liann pursues him too. The grotesque high point of this lyrical nightmare comes when Liann finds that John has practically memorized the factory-manual description of her job, ""Stuffing Machine Operator."" (""It isn't you, Liann. It's the machine."") Liann leads John into the factory in the middle of the night (she thinks he wants to stuff a mattress). They knock out a security guard and lock him in John's office, and ultimately Liann is fired (after inventing a story that spares John and gets Stephan--whom John hands over to the police--out of jail). None of these people matter very much to John. He is buried deep in the black, self-absorbing pain of the body: Battered John can't bear to be touched. A darkly beautiful piece of writing that describes the secret taste and the heart of perversity. It is frightening, haunting, almost sickeningly acute--and impressive.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
ISBN: 1437052592
Publisher: Poseidon/Simon & Schuster