Happy, Texas 

Thursday, Jul 22 2004

Bret Anthony Johnston’s Corpus Christi is not the one of sun and fun, where spring-breakers do keg stands on the beach and cowboys trade in their horses for surfboards; it’s a locale populated with tragic characters whose lives play out like the modern-day Westerns synonymous with Sam Shepard. The lone palm tree on the book jacket — standing its ground against an oncoming hurricane — is a fitting metaphor for Johnston’s protagonists, all of whom are susceptible to the emotional and financial maelstroms prevalent in blue- to slightly white-collar circumstances. Their fallibility is expected, their sense of hope a surprise. Simplistic and brisk on the surface, Johnston’s debut collection of short stories is actually intense and lyrical, with compact, penetrating sentences and dialogue precise enough to have been lifted from a Dictaphone.

In the wryly comical “Anything That Floats,” a wife with a heart of gold struggles with her infidelity as her husband recovers from bypass surgery. Meanwhile, her fling of a lover, the manager of the Catalina Motel, flirts with her and eggs on her son, an 8-year-old snake aficionado fond of cannonballing into the motel’s pool. Children are focal points in many of Johnston’s narratives — whether symbols of love and loss or moral barometers for the adults caught between right and wrong. In “Two Liars,” a son remembers succumbing to his father’s torching of their modest home to collect an insurance settlement, and “In the Tall Grass” tells of a different son recounting his father’s assault on a rancher and the night in jail that ensued.

Death seems especially hard on this South Texas community. In addition to a not-so-chance encounter between a man and his former wife that incites recollections of their prematurely deceased son (the cause of their divorce) and a bizarre car wreck that leaves one dead and another barely alive, Corpus Christi is anchored by three independent yet interwoven stories in which an introverted academic returns home to care for his terminally ill mother. As she deteriorates, more and more memories surface, until the past morphs into the present, bridging the gap between the son she imagines as a child and the man he has become. This novella of sorts is achingly beautiful, if a bit overwhelming when coupled with Johnston’s already absorbing accounts of marginalized persons personifying the Middle American blues.

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CORPUS CHRISTI: Stories | By BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON | Random House 255 pages | $24 hardcover

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