BREAK ANY WOMAN DOWN
by Dana Johnson (University of Georgia Press, $24.95)
SADLY, for most readers, the label "literary fiction" signals the end of fun. Yes, they understand a book very well might promise big words, conflicts, and ideas, but in a bookstore overly stocked with celebrity bios and no-brain page-turners, those offerings can seem meager compared to the prospect of being entertained. Remarkably, Dana Johnson's debut short-story collection, Break Any Woman Down—which rightly won the 2001 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction—deftly achieves both art and amusement. While these nine tales, set in L.A. and the South, tug their audience into the intellectual minefields of race, gender, and class, by book's close, readers will find themselves happily meandering across the terrain.
Just as the literary author faces the tough task of nurturing a relationship with the average reader, Johnson's characters struggle to connect with those differing from themselves. Most often these contrasts are racial: In "Melvin in the Sixth Grade," Avery—a black girl who has recently moved from South Central to largely white West Covina—pines for her fellow misfit, a Caucasian rural transplant whom she dubs, "My beautiful alien from Planet Cowboy." The funny yet pain-filled "Bars" chronicles a middle-aged black woman's mishaps in an "ivory man/ebony woman" chat room, while in the melancholic "Markers," Avery returns, this time dating an Italian who, at a dinner party, refuses to serve her mother's greens alongside his Mediterranean dishes.
Rarely does Johnson allow her protagonists to hurdle these barriers. In the fascinatingly creepy "Clay's Thinking"— a smart mix of vampire lore and class strife—a photo developer by day/guitarist by night enters into a barbed fling with a classy white-collar lady who's possibly married and definitely exploitative. Once their affair collapses, Clay realizes, "I don't even have one single picture of Mirabella. Like if I wanted to show somebody, 'Look, dude. I used to be with this girl. I used to be this girl's man,' I can't do it."
CONSIDERABLE issues surface from Johnson's stories, but they enter readers' skulls through osmosis rather than a hammering action. Take this passage from the chilling title story, which concerns the relationship between La Donna, an ex-stripper, and Bobby, her porn actor boyfriend. La Donna's supposed to meet Bobby and his pal Frank for drinks at a hotel, but to her disappointment, her lover never appears:
I sank down in the couch and looked at the pictures on the walls. Old Hollywood pictures. Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn. Lots of group shots at the Oscars in the '30s and '40s. I thought of Bobby with his dick in between some woman's tits. I raised a finger to order another drink, but Frankie slapped it down. He pulled a silver flask from the pocket of his jean jacket. . . .
L.A.'s seamy side, Bobby's misogyny, and the victimization of La Donna—all central themes of the story—seep through just a few sentences, revealing the writer's knack for subtlety.
Johnson's also capable of packing her prose with lighter material. Humor coats many of these stories, making their deeply alienated protagonists and often-depressing endings more digestible. In "Melvin in the Sixth Grade," Avery relates her father's disapproval of her taste for light-skinned men: "One day Daddy passed my door, took one look at Leif Garrett all blonde and golden tan in his tight white jeans that showed off a very big bulge, and asked me, 'Avery, who in the hell are all these white boys?'"
Much of this humor depends on Johnson's talent for capturing vernacular, whether it be Southern Californian or deep Southern. Such is the case when the narrator of "Bars" recalls her foray into Internet chat rooms: "I start reading the lists, trying to pick a room, and honey. They got something for everybody. I can't remember what all I saw, but I went from chess players to married-but-looking to vampires to witches before I said, hold up. Let me go back to the beginning of the list, start early in the alphabet and get away from these freaks."
"Three Ladies Sipping in a Persian Garden," the most enchanting of Johnson's tales, plants the reader among a trio of friends—the narrator, who just canceled a romance with a man she calls "a pretty package," and two Iranian sisters, Sharzad and Nasim. As the three while away the afternoon, we watch them squabble, joke, gulp tea, smoke too many cigarettes, and utilize pencils to test the perkiness of their breasts. Before she embraces the feisty pair goodbye, the narrator reflects, "Leaving [Sharzad's] house is never easy." It's equally difficult for the reader to leave—either Sharzad's or Break Any Woman Down, a book whose greatest weakness is its mediocre cover. Johnson's ability to coax the heart as much as the mind doesn't assure her a slot on best-seller lists, but it does mark the author as a storyteller at her most potent.