Johnny Too Bad
John Dufresne
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Buy *Johnny Too Bad: Stories* online

Johnny Too Bad: Stories
John Dufresne
W.W. Norton
247 pages
May 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In the hands of a master storyteller, it only takes a few pages to set the tone for this collection, establishing the author's credentials in "Lemonade and Paris Buns," where four memorable waifs stop to play with the protagonist and his dog, Spot, but disappear into a system that has no memory of them. The children inhabit the author's thoughts through the book, a reminder of the transience of life.

Dufresne has a remarkable imagination, a world filled with ordinary people who frequently verbalize what we are unable to say, incorporating both the beauty and the dark heart of humanity. Generously scattered among the characters, a number of animals inhabit this fascinating landscape, particularly the inimitable Spot, who reminds those around them about unconditional love.

The title story of the collection, “Johnny Too Bad,” is by far the longest and most thought-provoking, a confusion of wants, needs and possibilities, and the protagonist questions his own motives in playing “the game of undermining my own emotional prosperity”. There is continuity to these stories, a thread of connectedness that makes them all of a whole, Johnny, Spot and Annick showing up periodically to struggle with their relationship and the direction of their lives.

Dufresne mines his fertile imagination for the memorable citizens, old friends, murdering sociopaths, general miscreants and kind-hearted folks who care deeply for their animals. Even here there are aberrations, such as the man who puts his cancer-riddled dog down himself, or the man who shoots his dog for disobeying. This is the territory of ordinary lives, where every day is filled with personal intimacies and dealings with strangers, every conversation an opportunity, extrapolating on a theme, adding the details that ring true. "Sometimes we're better when we write."

The quirky, the odd, the unusual all mix with the mundane elements of life, the small moments that are memorable for their honesty and compassion. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the author's penchant for unusual names, his stories sprinkled with such imaginative gems as Rance Usrey, Berjermy and Bungo, Kirby Ogg, Krystal Drinkwater, Patsy Fantasia and Romeo Pargoud. These names alone suggest a writer who loves language in all its permutations.

From the wealth of their experiences, Dufresne’s characters make unexpected observations, reacting to the changing conditions of their lives, ambiguous and boring for some, taken from others through random events, like Richard, “a person whose dreams are real but his hopes are not.” Cancer is real and so is death; then we are surprised by poignant introspections, islands of clarity in an often confusing world. All of a piece, these disparate tales form whole cloth, an examination of the foibles and heartbreaks that define humanity and the quest for happiness, or at least contentment.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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