Johnny Too Bad: Stories
by John Dufresne
A review by Andrew O'Hehir
I came to John Dufresne's story collection Johnny Too Bad skeptically,
and then I picked it up and read it straight through without stopping. The thing
is, I am not among Dufresne's core fan base (which is substantial), although I
have no doubts about the scope of his talent. Somehow the things that have always
bugged me a little about his novels -- the insistence on tragicomic balance, the
intrusive authorial voice, the whimsical Wal-Mart surrealism -- became the very
qualities that make these stories irresistible. Go figure.
In the first story here, "Lemonade and Paris Buns," a man who lives
in South Florida and writes stories for a living, whose name is John and whose
dog is named Spot and who comes originally from Massachusetts, has a mysterious
encounter with a group of foster children who may not live where they say they
live (indeed, they may not live anywhere at all). This anecdote is actually
repeated in the second story, "I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can
Eat the Window," when the narrator -- the same guy, it sounds like -- tries
to prove to a long-absent, crazy stepfather that he's actually a writer.
Simple, right? Since the details match Dufresne's biography (I'm not sure if
he has a dog named Spot, but who would make that up?), the spectral foster children
and the crazy stepdad must be real too. Maybe they are, but by the end of that
story Dufresne accomplishes an extraordinary magic act. First he recounts meeting
a nonfiction writer at a conference in Vermont who tells him that her 5-year-old
son has recently died after a brutal yearlong struggle with a brain tumor. She
blubbers, then brightens and tells him it's all a lie -- her son is a 22-year-old
Our narrator is appropriately horrified and wonders if the Vermont lady might
be psychotic. But a page later he's in a bar, drinking with a woman named Kate
who tells him about her long affair with a married man who finally got up the
courage to leave his wife and children -- and who asphyxiated alone on his boat
that very night, thanks to a leaky gas heater. "I thought if I were to
write this story, what would I do?" the narrator wonders. "Change
Kate to, let's say, Paulina, make her a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.
With a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Where did that come from? Give the boyfriend
another job, another home. Could the boat be a camper? Then again, why change
anything? What's the chances anyone involved would ever read their story?"
Last comes a story-within-the-story, a Dufresnian tour de force called "What
Are We? What Are We to Do?" which tells the tale of, yes, Tom the philandering
husband and Iris the devastated wife. But something funny has happened since
John's failed attempt to pick up Kate in the bar: Paulina the chemistry Ph.D.
is only an offstage voice; the story is more about Iris' agony and Tom's self-delusion.
As he lies dying on the boat, ignoring the chirps of the carbon monoxide alarm,
Tom imagines his long-dead father appearing, to read him a favorite story from
So in his deliberately digressive fashion, Dufresne has brought us face to
face with the central contradiction of fiction: Even the parts that seem completely
autobiographical are made up, and even the parts that seem completely invented
are true. A writer, he wants us to understand, steals shamelessly from everyone,
not least himself, but if he has any craft at all, those pilfered elements are
shaped into something new.
Not all the stories in Johnny Too Bad are narrated by the same New England-born
Southern writer with a dog named Spot (and an on-again, off-again girlfriend
named Annick), but Johnny is an intermittent presence, always being carried
away by childhood memories and always ruminating on the distance, or lack thereof,
between his life and his fiction. In the final story, "Squeeze the Feeling,"
Annick tries to convince Johnny to write a beach-and-airplane paperback, or,
as she puts it, "a book that someone would like to read." Since his
latest novel, "The Bright Sun Will Bring It All to Light," is about
to be published, Johnny doesn't find this helpful. (That isn't an actual Dufresne
title, but "Love Warps the Mind a Little" and "Deep in the Shade
of Paradise" are.)
Whether Johnny is in the story or not, all of Johnny Too Bad reverberates
with the themes, ideas and even plots of those first two stories. Family members,
ex-wives and old girlfriends return from the past, with unpredictable results.
Seduced by romantic fantasy, men abandon their wives and families -- but a man
alone is a dangerous phenomenon, always trending toward darkness and death.
For me, anyway, the relative brevity of these stories heightens their pathos.
They seem grimmer and more fatalistic than Dufresne's other work, which makes
me tolerate his splashes of Tom Robbins/John Irving whimsy better. In the title
story, a pair of chimpanzees show up on Johnny's suburban street after a tornado
passes through, destroying Johnny's house but leaving him, Annick and (miraculously)
Spot unharmed. I didn't mind the chimps and anyway, who knows? It probably happened.