Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 29.
- Review Date: 2009-09-07
- Reviewer: Staff
In her debut collection, Johnson maps the lives of several New Orleanians who orbit Delia Delahoussaye's Laundromat on Palmyra Street, where “saying hello and fighting can sound just alike.” The title story finds a stoned teenage Delia longing to kiss a girl named Chuck in the belly of an empty oil tank, a makeshift sense-deprivation chamber that Delia thinks “shakes you loose from yourself.” By the end of the second story, “Keeping Her Difficult Balance,” it's unclear whether Delia will ever escape her childhood identity. “If the Holy Spirit Comes for You” finds her brother, Dooley, nursing a pig his uncles want to slaughter, and the story's moral nuance and consequences echo through “Killer Heart,” where an older Dooley's good deeds lead to tragedy. In “Titty Baby,” a child called Pudge must protect his baby sister from an abusive father. Years later, in “St. Luis of Palmyra,” Pudge's child creates his own criminal code of conduct. Johnson has a deep well of empathy for her characters, and her book's big heart beats strongest when portraying Mid-City's most marginal characters. (Nov.)
On the streets of New Orleans
The map of modern American fiction is scattered with urban spaces, from cafés and diners to beauty parlors and laundries. These public areas function like the old town square, providing a place for locals to rub shoulders, gossip, hang out and people-watch. The Bubble, a New Orleans Laundromat, is one of these iconic spots in More of this World or Maybe Another, a book of linked stories by new author Barb Johnson. The Bubble is owned by Delia and her partner Maggie, and it serves as a gathering place for many in their diverse Mid-City community, embracing gay and straight; black, white and Latino; the recent immigrants and the old-timers.
As much as these stories are rooted in the neighborhood, it is four characters whose paths cross that are the centerpiece of the book. The title story, “More of This World or Maybe Another,” introduces Delia, then a teenager in rural Louisiana, on the eve of a school dance, when her strong feelings for her date’s sister threaten to upend her world. After moving into the city to pursue his music, her younger brother Dooley’s life is shattered by a devastating accident. Their friend Pudge survives years of painful teasing, but his adult years are spent wandering the streets in an alcoholic haze, spying on his teenage son, Luis. And in the final story, “St. Luis of Palmyra,” Luis finds refuge and peace in an abandoned car across from the Laundromat. The family one is born to and, more importantly, the one these characters piece together from friends, neighbors and co-workers, is paramount. Johnson, who spent years working as a carpenter before pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing, creates complex, intensely human characters, almost impossible not to care about. Each story is suffused with warmth and empathy, focusing on those singular moments in life, painful or ecstatic and sometimes both, when everything changes. If there is a fault here, it is that some of the individual stories don’t hold up well on their own. Gathered together, however, More of This World or Maybe Another is a strong debut full of heart and memorable moments. Lauren Buffered writes from Nashville.