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 med student.
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 childhood.
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.