Tuesday, March 19, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 15

Sandra Thompson on Dana Johnson's BREAK ANY WOMAN DOWN

When I saw reviews of Dana Johnson’s novel, Elsewhere, California, published last year, I remembered reading her first book and what a surprise that book was. Break Any Woman Down felt so fresh, so real, so non-BS. and its stories were about things I wasn’t used to seeing in short story collections, which can tend to be a little PC or maybe it’s just the writers’ lives are that way.

Dana Johnson was different. Take the title story, "Break Any Woman Down." (A great title!) A stripper named LaDonna falls for an actor in third-rate porn films. He makes her stop stripping and get an office job but they spend their free time watching his films in a never-ending loop of sex that always ends the same way whether what you see on the screen is the real thing or a substitute, like glue. It’s a long story about a relationship that in its specifics is different from any I’ve read but at its core is pretty universal. A girl falls in love, thinks the guy cares about her until he doesn’t anymore and she realizes he never really did.

In the collection, the other stories I like best are the first and last, "Melvin in the Sixth Grade" and "Markers." They involve the same character, a black girl named Avery who is nine years old when her family moves from the L.A. of the Crips and the Bloods to white suburbia.

In the first story we meet the child Avery, new to the suburbs and in love with an outcast white kid named Melvin. She’s a girl smart enough to see the way she starts methodically making changes to herself to fit into her new world, dropping the things that don’t fit, even if she thinks she loves them.

The last story is Avery at 28, living with an older Italian man in a posh house on an L.A. hillside. On a hot day, late to prepare for a dinner party, Avery gets lost driving her mother to the food stamp office. Her mother, a motel maid, never learned how to drive and goes by markers as she did when she lived in Arkansas. Avery is at the breaking point until she realizes something new about her mother and her—and what getting lost means.

When I picked up Dana Johnson’s novel, Elsewhere, California, I met the same Avery, now 40, and at the point where she is ready to make sense of the woman she has become. To get there, she tells the rest of her story, beginning at the beginning, but shifting back and forth from the childhood Avery of the sixth grade and Melvin to the grown up woman in the big expensive house and her mother. It’s a subtle, complicated, and compelling story.

I’m always struck that the Flannery O’Connor Award is the beginning in publishing for so many writers—as it was for Dana Johnson and for me. I love to see one of us publish that next book (and the next and next).

I’m reading her new novel now, but I feel like an insider. I got into Dana Johnson ten years ago.

Sandra Thompson is the author of CLOSE-UPS (1984) and Wild Bananas, a novel. She was an editor and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. A native of Chicago and longtime resident of Brooklyn, she lives in Tampa, Florida, with her husband, Chris Sherman.