I’ve been a fan of Greg Johnson’s fiction for a long time. His novels ‘Pagan Babies’ and ‘Sticky Kisses’ are both excellent and the several short story collections he’s published show an impressive variety of styles and voices. Back in 2005 I was asked to guest-edit an issue of the online literary journal Blithe House Quarterly and I quickly asked Johnson to submit a story. It was a wonderful project as I was able to include Johnson as well as many other authors I respect and admire like Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Michael Carroll (whose first book of short stories is being published this summer by the University of Wisconsin Press.) It was thrilling to receive Johnson’s story “Women I’ve Known” about a revealing fictional letter exchange with the author Willa Cather. This title has also been used as the title of this collection of old and new stories. The name is appropriate as the stories feature a range of fascinating female characters who we come to know intimately by the end of each story. Many of the stories are centered around Atlanta and contain a distinctly Southern flavor. Usually with short story collections I find myself unable to connect with some stories and only find a few really memorable. However, this book includes only stellar examples of the short story form; each tale is a mesmerizing read and makes a lasting emotional impact.
Some of the stories are from a male perspective, but concentrate heavily on the lives of enigmatic and interesting women the men encounter. “Crazy Ladies” is a haunting story about a boy's encounter with a woman branded in the local community as crazy because she lives shut in with her adult son and occasionally escapes the house to wander the town singing and removing her clothes. When she finds her way into the boy's grandmother's house the old woman states how her son abuses her and removes her clothes to show her bruised body. The son comes to take his mother away and though the police are contacted no action is taken against the son. The story makes us question the term 'crazy' and if such terminology is just a neat way to dismiss things which are too ugly or difficult to face. In 'Fever' a boy spends his days at home with rheumatic fever being cared for by his young mother who is a housewife and married to a man who is much older than her. They watch melodramatic movies and the boy wonders if his mother is having a love affair like the heroines in the dramas. The pair feel that they “could do nothing with the terrible fever of the roused love inside us, which was objectless, ravenous, and self-consuming, and which left only an astonished silence in its wake.” They are trapped together in the house with all these emotions churning inside them, but are unable to direct them out anywhere with only fantasies used as outlets for all their feelings. Many stories in this collection thus prompt the reader to ask profound questions such as what happens when we feel love, but have no object for that love?
In 'Escalators' an aunt and her nephew are left only with each other after tragedies took the lives of the rest of their close family. The nephew Gary tries to help his glamorous aunt Dinah overcome her many fears – starting with her fear of escalators. In a series of sections the truth about the death of Dinah's son Avery is revealed in a way that is dramatic and heartbreaking. The story 'I Am Dangerous' is bloody with the raw heartache of emotion. But like many of these stories much of the violence and tumultuous emotions are held inside rather than expressed externally. There is a tension between the fantasy of how the narrator wants to portray himself and the way he acts. A virtually wordless companionship with a woman in an otherwise empty movie theatre becomes the most intimate and intense encounter of his life although it is completely anonymous. There is a tragic sense of being locked in one's own consciousness when he's thinking about his relationship to others and observing “I'll never know their private histories and they'll never know mine, and what other kind of history is there?” We are all trapped in our subjective experience of the world and that personal history isn't capable of being conveyed in any true sense. However, the story seems to suggest that this aura of mystery and not being able to truly know the motives of others is the very fuel which fires love.
Other stories in the collection are from a female perspective. “Leavings” follows Claire, a woman who returns to her estranged aunt Lillian's house to help her move. It examines different kinds of loneliness through three characters. Claire is on the brink of breaking up from her husband. Strong-willed Lillian's belongings are stolen. And Lillian's son Mack commits suicide after disengaging with the world. The story produces a strong sense of melancholy as each character feels very alone with their personal struggle despite being a family. The satirical story 'Scene of the Crime' portrays a wealthy divorcee who drags her daughter from one high-end store to another in an endless quest to fill an emotional void with material goods. The daughter Edie grudgingly goes along inwardly cursing her mother and acting out, but remaining impassive or numb on the outside. Her most cherished memory is when her parents were together and threw a party where she felt “Surely this was happiness, surely this was the happiest moment of her childhood – though she couldn't know it, then, and indeed its glory lay in not needing to 'know' it, or to know anything.” She found the greatest pleasure in life was in the shared and loving company of her family which has now been replaced by empty consumerism. Her mother's outward appearance is described in grotesque detail and as being thinly veiled beneath expensive clothes and make up – reflecting the ugliness of her attitude towards life. It leads the daughter to commit an act of small rebellion to expose and shame her. 'Alliances of Youth' presents a trio of the women who were most intimately acquainted with a young man who has died. They gather for a funeral and their feelings of possession over the departed man are played out with all the dramatic tension of a staged play. Jealousy and resentment divide the women – none of whom really knew or understood the man because of the secrets he maintained.
The characters in some of the stories avoid dealing with their own shortcomings and feelings of being unfulfilled by channeling their energy into specific people. In “The Boarder” a married Catholic woman meets a young professor who she impulsively invites to become a boarder in her home. She sees him as a companion and friend, but as time goes on the professor becomes more elusive and mysterious. Her husband tries to hold her back from becoming too intimate with the professor and allow him his privacy. But when a violent altercation takes place and an unsettling truth about him is revealed about him the processor suddenly disappears from her life leaving her bereft. The incident causes her to meditate on her own solitude and distance from people. In “Wildfires” a young man comes to visit with his brother and sister in law before starting college. The brother Gerald is haunted by his time in Vietnam and unable to begin his life fully. His wife Janet hasn't been able to find fulfillment either as she has unrealized artistic ambitions. Johnson has an extraordinary way of imbedding Janet's inexpressible emotions in her physicality several times throughout the story – specifically through her hands. “At her sides lay her white hands, unclenched and still.” The good-intentioned aunt of the story ‘Schadenfreude’ invites her niece to live with her after the niece’s husband is imprisoned. Inevitably her help is more about claiming possession of the niece rather than really assisting her to achieve true independence.
Women find themselves in desperate circumstances in some of the stories as they try to figure out what should come next in their lives. Melancholy hangs heavily over three people in the story ‘A Dry Season.’ A woman named Nora avoids planning her next move after the death of her husband while on an extended stay with her friend Eleanor and her husband Neil. It’s a hot August at the couple’s lake house and while the three spend their time pleasantly together none of them are content with their lives. The effect of their unvoiced yearnings and restrained sorrow is subtly devastating. In the high drama story ‘The Metamorphosis’ a famed singer named Lacey performs for the crowd, but experiences a panicked moment of existential crisis when she thinks she sees in the crowd the leering smile of a man. Her artifice crumbles and her true self is revealed. This provokes lots of interesting questions about what someone’s essential being is and whether a person is able to interact with others without having some sort of front. “They love only the mask of her but that is all right – she is a symbol, an ideal, a star. She knows they too are wearing masks and she has often thought, up here, working her heart out, how necessary are these brash outlandish masks, how indispensible to protect the secret, feeling self.” All people create a public persona to engage socially, but it’s something which this story proposes is necessary in order to guard against the hurt of being fully revealed. In the story 'Hemingway's Cats' the central female character feels like an island, locked inside her own head and mentally removed at the safe distance from the reality around her. The wavering uncertainty of her answer to questions: “Yes. I mean, no” perfectly encapsulating her remove from the present and the pain of being drawn ever back to the past. 'Evening at Home' is a subtly troubling story of a recently married couple who plays host to the wife's parents for the night. Both the chirpy talkative mother and serious silent father are portrayed in such fine detail they feel entirely realistic as if they’ve been plucked out of someone’s living room. Their daughter's sense of being caged speaks of silent pain which cannot be uttered or expressed.
There is a section of this book which includes stories that form a conceptually cohesive group from Johnson's book of short stories “Last Encounter with the Enemy.” They all portray scenes from the lives of different female authors including Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather. Each story records an encounter between (a fictionalized version of ) the author himself and the writer portrayed using a series of reality-bending techniques. In most cases an acute awkwardness results from the meeting between Johnson and the literary idol each of whom is often unaware of the way time and the establishment have canonized them. In 'First Surmise' questions put to Emily Dickinson are received with horrified wonder until “Silence enwrapped our carriage like invisible gauze.” There is a disconnect between the author and the aura surrounding their work which leaves the intruder frequently baffled by the actual personality he encounters. There is a tragic sense of the writers feeling misunderstood in some of the stories like ‘To the Madhouse’ where Woolf works to revise her little-read novel “The Years.” The narrative voices of the stories reflect each writer’s personality so what really shines through is the distinct sensibility of each author that’s portrayed. This is a brilliant concept drawing on Johnson’s skill as a biographer and each of these stories are a dynamic tribute to the authors they portray, a serious commentary on their writing and a tremendously fun venture playing with the elasticity of narrative form.
The collection also includes some previously unpublished stories which take great narrative risks to produce startling and memorable results. The story 'Shameless' is a powerful account of a woman's desire for a man, her calculated tactics to capture his affection and the way she eventually loses out to many other women. Her intense passion is dammed behind a calm demeanor and her pride doesn't allow her to ask for what she really wants. What's unspoken between her and her lover is the reason why they can't really be together as a couple. Their pleasantries with each other are more dramatic than if they were to have a violent screaming break up. 'Who, What, When, Where' is perhaps the most technically daring story in the book where the account of a rape and murder are filtered through a detached journalistic perspective. Rather than mimic the structure of a news story, the details are chillingly relayed with a fatigued sense that this crime was inevitable. The deliberately anonymous character of the female victim perversely shows a skewed sense of impulsive tenderness which wouldn't be felt with a more detailed description. All emotion is held behind this diligent attempt to reconstruct details of the crime in a way that makes it more sharply felt and horrifying.
Johnson proves with this collection what a powerfully gifted storyteller he is. Many of the characters portrayed in these stories expand voluminously so that they feel fully three-dimensional. Their histories that include heart-break, loss and yearnings can be felt in the actions and choices they make in their own particular stories. It's the short story writer's best trick to make you feel like you've lived a long time with his characters even though you are only acquainted with them for several pages. "Women I've Known" is such a rewarding read it's well worth taking your time with each story to savor it's unique and thought-provoking riches.