Synopses & Reviews
From an acclaimed and award-winning young writer comes an intensely moving debut collection set in the eye of life's storms. In Corpus Christi, Texas a town often hit by hurricanes parents, children, and lovers come together and fall apart, bonded and battered by memories of loss that they feel as acutely as physical pain.
A car accident joins strangers linked by an intimate knowledge of madness. A teenage boy remembers his father's act of sudden and self-righteous violence. A "hurricane party" reunites a couple whom tragedy parted. And, in an unforgettable three-story cycle, an illness sets in profound relief a man's relationship with his mother and the odd, shifting fidelity of truth to love.
Told in fresh, lyrical voices and taut, inventive styles, these narratives explore the complex volatility of love and intimacy, sorrow and renewal and expose how often these experiences feel like the opposite of themselves. From the woman whose young son's uncanny rapport with snakes illuminates her own missed opportunities to the man confronting his wife and her lover in a house full of illegal exotic birds, all the characters here face moments of profound decision and recognition in which no choice is clearly or completely right.
Writing with tough humor, deep humanity, and a keen eye for the natural environment, Bret Anthony Johnston creates a world where where cataclysmic events cut people loose from their "regular lives, floating and spiraling away from where we had been the day before." Corpus Christi is a extraordinarily ambitious debut. It marks the arrival of an important, exquisitely talented voice to American fiction.
"[A] promising debut collection....[Ten] astutely observed stories....[W]ithout lapsing into sentimentality, [Johnston] evokes a peculiarly American brand of abject loneliness and tentative optimism." Publishers Weekly
"[C]ompelling and haunting pieces....Johnston's evocative descriptions of events, feelings, and Corpus Christi itself connect readers to his characters and their dilemmas and reactions to tragedy. Recommended." Library Journal
"Each individual story overcomes its tragic subject matter to deliver an honest and nonpatronizing view of the mainly lower-middle-class characters. However, trying to read these stories in one sitting may require an antidepressant." Booklist
"Lugubrious reading, more like workshop exercises than glimpses of real life." Kirkus Reviews
"These stories are relentlessly sober, large-hearted, and intense." Boston Globe
"Fans of Raymond Carver's spare, carefully crafted stories will rejoice....[Johnston has] a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a dead- on eye for conjuring an entire universe with one simple detail." San Francisco Chronicle
"There is power here, and Johnston is clearly serious about his craft, but his phrasing can be self-consciously awkward and graceless, his pacing by turns jerky and stagnant and his plotting unnecessarily oblique and byzantine." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"Bret Johnston writes with searing honesty and a deep compassion about the people in his native Texas. This astonishing book will break your heart, make you nod in comprehension, laugh out loud, and ultimately force you to see your own life in a fresh way. The prose is wonderfully precise and the observations are dead-on. Corpus is a brilliant debut by a young writer who has clearly put literature at the center of his life." Chris Offutt, author of Kentucky Straight
"Bret Anthony Johnston's stories read as if they'd been written by someone who's lived various lifetimes, time enough to develop real wisdom, generosity and the art of making strong clean sentences. What I especially love about these stories is the fact that many of the characters walk the finest line between violence and love, and they do so with a tenderness that is heartbreaking." Jane Hamilton
"Bret Anthony Johnston is a name to put on your list that list of writers you always read first. He knows how you can despair of people and go on treasuring them hard-living, hard-headed, unexpected people who look out of his stories like brightly lit signposts on a dark highway. 'Look here,' they say. 'Right here.'" Dorothy Allison
"In his first collection of stories, Bret Anthony Johnston eloquently depicts individual lives at once haunted and painfully enriched by memory, and by the losses of which memory is made. A wise and moving debut by a talented young writer." John Burnham Schwartz, author of Claire Marvel
About the Author
Bret Anthony Johnston has been featured in The Paris Review and Open City, as well as many anthologies, including New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2003 and 2004; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002; and Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he received a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he teaches creative writing at California State University, San Bernardino.
Reading Group Guide
In “Waterwalkers,” Sonny and Nora remember the hurricane party at which they met very differently. What do their different memories reveal about each of them? What larger implications does this have for their current relationship?
2. Nora tells Sonny: “Were not wired to remember what hurts us. Our bodies have no memory for pain.” Is this true of Sonnys own experience? Of Noras?
3. Why does the author choose to end this story with an upbeat flashback to the Atwill familys trip to the company picnic? What insight does this give us into who Sonny was before his sons death? How has he changed?
4. “I See Something You Dont See”
Minnie reflects in “I See Something You Dont See” that “shed always believed Lee would make a good doctor.” Is this an accurate assessment? How might Lee have compared with Minnies actual physicians, Dr. Rama and Dr. Wood?
5. Is Lee correct in trying to hide the metastasis from Minnie?
6. In her final weeks, Minnie starts to wonder “what kind of mother shed been.” In what ways has Minnie been a good mother? In what ways, if any, has her mothering fallen short?
7. “In the Tall Grass”
Are the narrators parents in “In the Tall Grass” a good match for each other?
8. The narrators father, George Kelley, tells his son, “A person can care too much.” What might he mean? How does this explain the events that follow?
9. The narrator in “In the Tall Grass” says that his father “saw that hed led his family into a different life.” Do you think the narrators father regrets this decision? Do you think the narrator-self-described as “a happily married, college-educated man whos never known violence”-regrets his fathers decision?
10. “Outside the Toy Store”
Why does the narrator in “Outside the Toy Store” tell Anna, “I hope it never happens to you”? Is Annas response reasonable? Do you think he understands that she will respond in the way that she does?
11. The narrator in “Outside the Toy Store” describes his encounter with Anna as an effort “to incite a drama that could open a new door, or an old one,” but one that had failed. Is their encounter entirely a failure? Are there any ways in which it might be considered a success?
12. “Corpus Christi”
What roles do coincidence and fate play in “Corpus Christi”?
13. Charlie in “Corpus Christi” thinks, “How easy to underestimate the wounded.” How does this apply to Edie? To Donnie? To Charlie himself? In what ways might this be ironic?
14. “The Widow”
Is there a turning point in Minnie and Lees relationship in “The Widow”? How does their relationship change as Minnies condition deteriorates?
15. Why does Minnie insist on planning her own funeral? What light does this shed on her personality?
16. “Two Liars”
Is Robert Jackson in “Two Liars” a good father?
17. Why does Toby punch Olaf Hollins?
18. Toby, at the end of “Two Liars,” says he “felt betrayed and alone, as if someone had set fire to my house and I was too far away to do anything but watch it burn.” How should we, as readers, interpret this?
19. “Anything That Floats”
What is the significance of the title? How might this apply to Colleens life?
20. Colleen says, “Ive failed and wounded all of these men who need me.” Is this fair? Does it apply to Tyler too?
21. Is “Anything That Floats” a love story? Does it have a happy ending?
22. “Birds of Paradise”
Curtis, the narrator of “Birds of Paradise,” says that none of what happened on the afternoon of the story is “beyond forgiveness.” What is there to forgive? Is it all truly forgivable?
23. Is Phillip Bundick deserving of our sympathies? Is Luis Ortega deserving of our sympathies? Which man is a better match for Fancy?
24. What is the nature of the relationship between Curtis and Fancy? How do you think it might end?
25. “Buy for Me the Rain”
Are Lee and Moira in “Buy for Me the Rain” in love with each other? Is there any possibility they might have a future together?
26. Lee says that he would hurt someone who didnt deserve it if Moira or his mother asked him to. Is he capable of this? Why does Moira ask him?
27. Lee imagines his mother as a child. Do we have any sense of who Minnie might have been as a child or a young woman? As a wife? How has her husbands death changed her?
28. General Discussion
What role does the setting of Corpus Christi and its environs play in these stories? Is there something distinctly Southern or distinctly Texan in these stories? Also, the characters and residents of Corpus Christi always refer to the city simply as “Corpus,” so what might the significance of the books title be? After reading the book, do you think of the city as “Corpus” or “Corpus Christi”? How might your anticipated reaction have factored into the authors decision about the title?
29. Class and economic security-the loss of wealth, the fear of poverty-play a large role in most of the stories in Corpus Christi. What is the author trying to tell us about the role of money in contemporary society?
30. Many of the characters in Corpus Christi offer up wisdom on the keys to living a happy life. What are some of the suggestions? Would any of the characters in the other stories have benefited from these suggestions?