Emporium (02 Edition)
by Adam Johnson
A review by Taylor Antrim
The stories in Adam Johnson's Emporium capture youth's torque, its weird braid of exhilaration and loneliness. His teenagers land in surreal circumstances: a Christian musclemen rally, a cancer-victim roadhouse blowout, a desert backyard with caged, hungry wolves. And always, they're seeking connection, definition, a good time, in the way all teenagers do. Except there's nothing humdrum here. Each of Johnson's fantasies, each peculiar landscape, glows hot with imagination.
In "Teen Sniper" a fifteen-year-old shoots Silicon Valley executives for the police, courts Seema (a jiu-jitsu princess), and battles with the swelling of his empathetic heart. Johnson's ear is pitch-perfect, and here he nails a teenage demotic; our hero gives Seema his thermal scope, asks her to call him, and walks bravely away. "Maybe I look like a dork to people driving by, a kid walking all slow down the yellow line, but if you're looking at someone through a scope, they become large, filling the whole field of view, and there's nothing in the world but them."
That ache of isolation finds beautiful expression all over the Emporium. In "Cliff Gods of Acapulco" (which originally appeared in Esquire), our narrator finds himself left behind by his friends in a barren suburbia: "They all load up and drive away, leaving me looking from the dark garage out into the overbright harrows of sharp-cornered tract homes…." And in "The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite", Ben, nineteen, floats post-high school, pre-college, adrift in the aftermath of his mother's death to cancer. He seeks the company of the Cancer Survivor's Club, a gang of women with mastectomy scars, catheters, and an unlimited store of joie de vivre.
Johnson's prose recalls the inventions of Barry Hannah, his wild settings bring George Saunders to mind, and he's as funny as both. In "The Jughead of Berlin" a Louisiana girl sums up her school day: "it's parlez-vous, hypoteneuse, The Red Badge of Verbiage, and the Randy driving me home in his boss Jeep." Emporium is loaded with such flash, not to mention the occasional brainy techno-detail, like how to get the Playboy channel free: "Just connect two parallax converters in tandem with a P-9 capacitor, then bridge the diode with an alligator clip."
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