Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The Morning Light by Curt Johnson is the best small press novel I have read. The texture of small town Iowa life is present and real, mostly coming through the dialogue. Here is father, after a visit to wife and new baby, taking daughter, aged four, back home:
“When will he come home? Will he come home with Momma?”
“I think so. Pull your feet in.”
“Oh . . . Well, when he comes home, what will we do with him?”
He started the car. “What did we do with you?”
“. . . I don’t remember.”
“We took care of you. Get up Barbara. When I’m driving, you sit up here beside me on the seat. Get up!”
“I’ll help you take care of him,” she said. “I went to the hospital with you to get my brother, so I’m a grown-up now, aren’t I? Only grown-ups go to the hospital, right? Grown-ups and policemen. Right?”
“Right,” he said.
These people talk the way people really talk. Beyond the feeling of an authentic texture, of a whole social fabric from town cop to town crook, from town idiot to town hero (a big-league baseball player), there is in the sharing of this baseball player’s experience, a feeling of having been inside a man’s mind. It’s in all Johnson’s books. It’s because of his commitment to being completely honest about all his feelings.
So the usual triangle, of wife and kids on the one hand, and mistress on the other, is never slick — no solution is pat. Lovemaking with the mistress is free and happy; with the wife, he is hamstrung by her and his inhibitions. But how much he revels in his four-year-old daughter’s straight and clear questions and reactions! There is no easy answer but there are moral choices that have to be made in the absence of easy answers.
This novel was originally written in the early 60’s and should have been brought out by a major house, as his first novel, Hobbledehoy’s Hero, was. It is available from a small press in Ohio for $5.00. Write Carpenter Press, Rt. 4, Pomeroy, Ohio, 45769.
Nobody’s Perfect, Johnson’s second novel to be published, though the third to be written, takes up the whole issue of who gets published and why. It takes as its main subject the uproarious literary politics of the late 60’s, when the government first set up the National Endowment for the Arts, and fools and crooks and serious editors asked for money to keep small-scale literary operations afloat in a sea of conglomerate-owned houses and declining public taste. One of the best parts is the description of the first COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers) meeting.
The two main characters, a truck driver named Gasserpod Peasporr Slocum, and his mentor, a small magazine editor, Ellis Schoenobatic, take us on a marvelous tour of the USA, into all the current scenes — political, artistic, sexual — and finally back to Sausalito and the girl they left behind.
A totally serious novel with a spoof on every page. The language is alive — a little ribald, but never dull. And Schoenobatic is memorable, always surviving the absurd dilemmas he gets them into.
This novel cuts into and through the cultural grain so well, it is no wonder it is still largely unread. My favorite passage, the last: “Gasserpod, Gasserpod Peaseporr America, United Statum of Amer-ik, red, white, and star-spangled sky-o, I want to know why-o, municipal rapport. O! the Killinger, sweet as the white of a pear. Amer-ik, for beautiful for Marilyn, my cruller-cruel-o-Marilyn. Gasserpod, Gasserpod! Gasserpod . . .”
Order for $6.00 from Carpenter Press, Rt. 4, Pomeroy, Ohio, 45769.
Johnson’s most recent novel, Lace and a Bobbitt, is about man’s struggle to cope — unsuccessfully — with what happens when the social rituals of urban/suburban life break down, when the wife no longer wants to be a wife, when the mistress says she loves him until he believes her, and then goes on to someone else, when the whole world crashes in on him personally and there is very little left, even of humor. There is only the rigorous honesty. I think every woman who has either been a wife or a mistress should read this book. It opens up what a man goes through better than anything I have read in psychology books or elsewhere. Lace is available for $2.50 from Vagabond Press, Box 879, Ellensburg, Wa. 98926.
It is in Johnson’s fiction especially, that I find that quality of honesty, of telling it all, and telling it well, and telling it so you can get close to the truth yourself, that makes for moral fiction. Not that there is only one way to act, but that every act and every truth or falsehood about it is part of what we can’t avoid, part of what is — forever.
His heroes are frail — but also strong and unbreakable, because they cope with these realities, not blurring or distorting what is there, what they have done, or how they feel. And this rubs off on us, makes the reader braver about acknowledging the truth in his or her own guts.
And to do all this with zest and humor and incredibly accurate human dialogue is a feat I can only call heroic.