Corpus Christi Bret Anthony Johnston
I first became aware of Brett Anthony Johnston because of a terrific story that he had in the Fall 2011 issue of American Short Fiction titled "Paradeability" about a father coping with the aftermath of his wife's death and his son's obsession with learning how to become a clown, which is the boy's way of coping with his mother's loss. It's a greatly paced and nuanced story, offering wonderful insights into how the father and son cope with tragedy. All the skill at display in that piece made me go searching for more work by Johnston and this collection didn't let me down. Each story offers a terrific premise, great character insight and deft writing.
The 10 stories in the piece, all located in or near Corpus Christi, Texas, are:
1. Waterwalkers - 31 pp - My favorite story in the collection. While a hurricane is bearing down on Corpus Christi, a man runs into his ex-wife in a hardware store. They haven't seen each other in years, since they separated and divorced after the death of their son. The story is filled with evidence of why they had the original connection, and how it got marred by the pain of losing their child.
2. I See Something You Don't See - 29 pp - The first in a trilogy of stories about a son who's had to take time off from his teaching job and post-graduate studies in order to move back to Texas to take care of his mother who is dying from cancer. Here his mother is hopeful that she still has some time to enjoy life, but when the son learns her cancer has actually taken a turn for the worse, he keeps the news from her for a while and is wracked with guilt about keeping a secret he knows will shatter all her newfound hope.
3. In the Tall Grass - 27 pp -- A son who has a distant relationship with a father he worships witnesses an episode in which the father erupts into violence, kicking an already hobbled man in his weak knee because of a dispute over the rent the father owes on a stall in a horse barn. The boy, eager for the connection, is mystified by why his father would take him along to witness such a scene.
4. Outside the Toy Store - 10 pp - A widow meets a woman he dated five years earlier, after his wife died and when his daughter was gravely ill. The woman is with her twin, three-year-old boys whom she had with another man after their relationship ended. The encounter begins pleasantly, with each of them recalling fond memories of their time together, but then their interaction takes a surprising turn that reveals much about the man's current state of mind.
5. Corpus Christi - 35 pp - The one story I wasn't thrilled by. It gets a little too artsy for me with the point of view shifting from one character to the next, and there are sections you have to read several times just to figure out what's going on. It's all about the at first circumstantial, and then tragic interaction between a man whose suicidal wife is in a psychiatric hospital and the sister of a soldier who's been committed there after brutally beating up a fellow soldier on the base. On the road later, there's an even more fateful encounter between the husband, the sister, and another soldier from the base who brought her to the hospital.
6. The Widow - 26 pp - The second installment in the trilogy of stories about son Lee and his mother, Minnie, who's dying of cancer. Set again in the present moment when Lee is caring for her, the story reveals through several flashbacks how close Minnie had been to her late husband, and how she'd never fully emotionally recovered from his sudden death a few years earlier from a heart attack.
7. Two Liars - 27 pp - Another story about a young boy witnessing the wayward ways of a father he adores. In this piece, the son watches his father arrive at startling decision for how to deal with the family's financial woes - he sets their house on fire.
8. Anything That Floats - 12 pp - To escape the heat during a prolonged drought, a mother, whose husband is in the hospital, takes her snake-obsessed son to a pool at a hotel managed by a man she had an affair with the year before as payback for her husband's philandering.
9. Bird of Paradise - 22 pp - A teenaged boy gets involved with a friend's crazy father who is having an affair with a woman and asks the boys to steal things from his lover's house. But things taken a dramatic turn when the cuckolded husband, having learned of the affair, shows up at his rival's house with a gun.
10. Buy for Me the Rain - 29 pp - The final story in the Lee and Minnie trilogy packs an incredible wallop. Some incredibly moving scenes as the son sings to his mother, hoping to relieve her final painful moments. There is also a heart-wrenching description of of the mother's final breaths and what the son has to witness as he watches life seep out of his mother. Combined with those moving scenarios is a brutally honest portrait of the son's secret wish that his mother's funeral might give him the opportunity to reunite with the great love of his life, a flighty woman whom he quickly realizes can't give him all he wants even after she does come back into his life and they restore at least a physical connection.