Like music, stories have dynamics. There are the louder and the softer moments, the crescendos and the rests, and the author achieves these expressive elements through a careful mix of tone, language, and plot elements. It’s difficult, in literature, to pull off an abrupt dynamic shift—unlike, say, in rock music, where it can be enough for the Pixies to launch from a whispered verse to a chorus’s gut-rupturing yell. Much literature thrives, rather, on dynamic tension, on elevating “quiet,” mundane events, to an unexpected forte, and on the containing of the louder moments of human existence—murder, betrayal, loss, violence—within focused, poetically precise language.
In his story collection Irish Girl, Tim Johnston reveals himself a master of the latter. Each story layers suffering upon suffering. Johnston’s protagonists are, mostly, outsiders—college-educated sons come back home to work in their fathers’ trades, a teenage girl who moves to a new town after her mother dies, a widowed mother of adult twin sons, one of whom is mentally disabled—and one is hard put to determine if their pain is the cause or a result of their loneliness. In Johnston’s stories, children pay for their parents’ sins, and parents must contend with their children’s transgressions. In “Water,” for example, the widow Charlotte is now dating Bud, her deceased husband’s best friend, and Charlotte’s son becomes implicated in a hit-and-run accident that kills Bud’s daughter. The summary sounds like a soap opera, but in Johnston’s hands the story is rich and resonant. After she is informed that her sons need no longer report to work at Bud’s plumbing supply store, “Charlotte keeps the phone to her ear, listening to the strange, enormous silence there, a sound from the windy blacks of space. She stands frozen in it, her chest emptied” (28). How much more do we feel the weight of her suffering than if Johnston had had Charlotte hurl curse words or break something—the stillness, the closeness of the language, keeps the pain lodged and roiling under the surface.
There are times, however, when Johnston makes compositional missteps. In “Dirt Men,” the collection’s first story, the narrator has returned from a job as a college professor to work at his recently deceased father’s excavating business. The drama of the story, its crescendo and fall, come as the narrator, drinking beers at a local VFW with some old-timer co-workers, learns, through beer-slowed, deliberate conversation, that his father had cheated on his mother for years. A complex anecdote about the narrator getting “shit-canned” from his college job after taking issue with the overtly religious content in a prized student’s essay, however, doesn’t hold as much weight as Johnston seems to want it to—the narrator’s reported “heartbreak” at this event rings a bit false. Similarly, Johnston sometimes tries to shove his events into elaborate metaphorical constructs—the father in “Jumping Man,” for example, at a point when he’s realizing how much he has failed as a husband and a friend, asks his young son if he’s still doing drawings of the titular superhero, a character the son invented who escaped, unscathed, from the burning towers on 9-11. The son, unsurprisingly, responds that Jumping Man has just lost his powers. Forcing the reader’s attention in this way is a slip of the volume knob—a distracting, redundant emphasis.
Overall, though, Johnston hits the right notes more often than he doesn’t. The strongest moments in the stories are when Johnston lets his finely wrought attention to detail speak for itself. The narrator of “Antlerless Hunt,” studying at night to be an English teacher, works during the day as a mechanic. Working on a tire rotation, “he was in such a deep, thoughtless rhythm, nothing in his mind but the pneumatic burst of the driver, the clang of a lug in the pan” (53). By keeping the reader immersed in the specific sounds and textures of the job, Johnston, himself a carpenter by trade, avoids romanticizing the labor experience.
One of the strongest stories in the collection is “Things Go Missing,” the narrator of which is a teenage girl whose mother has recently died, whose older sister has run away, and whose father deals with his grief by obsessing over improvements on their new home. The girl has a penchant for stealing from her classmates’ homes and selling the contraband out of her locker. It’s not the stuff she’s after, but the feeling that the houses and their stuff provides: the “densely, privately scented bathrooms, their wide-open closets and still-damp bathrooms, their little cities of lotions and perfumes” (34). She gets caught, of course, and is sent to a chain-smoking therapist who attests to having had an affair with Michael Jordan, a poster of whom features prominently on her office wall. Rather than dismissing them as mere quirkiness, we believe in these details because details are how all of us, particularly teenage girls, perhaps, experience the world—how we experience suffering, happiness, all of it. Within the frame of the Jordan poster, the clang of metal in a pan, Johnston’s meanings hum at just the right volume.
Sara Jaffe is a writer, musician, and teacher living in Brooklyn.
University of North Texas Press, 2009
$12.95 paperback, ISBN: 157441271X