Beachside Blues

In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, when Leo Tolstoy’s terminally ill protagonist suddenly realizes that his life has been “most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying,†a new subject matter enters Western literature. The meaninglessness and emptiness of life have since become common in American short stories, but in 1887 in Russia, the idea was radical. Life’s emptiness and meaninglessness reveals itself most powerfully when the protagonist is confronted with situations that usually bestow consolations of wisdom, religion or beauty, causing some kind of growth or change in the character. But, for some reason, death, illness, and disappointment arrive unaccompanied by any kind of consolation and growth.

This failure of consolation fuels Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut collection, Corpus Christi Stories. Johnston, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a teacher of creative writing at California State University, is a former professional skate-boarder whose characters are strikingly motionless and whose stories are devoid of adrenaline. Suffering from depression, divorce, miscarriage, and death of parents, spouses and/or children, they refuse to get on with their lives, and they repel the reader’s attempt to sit mourning with them.

While Leo Tolsoy’s Ivan Ilyich struggles on the edge of transcendence, too late for philosophical and religious consolation but just in time to feel the loss of such consolations, modern and contemporary writers have sometimes dispensed with the great tragic moment. They replace it with a general sense of ennui or uneasiness, as if humanity had lost its great philosophical and religious sense-making underpinnings but had not yet found anything else worthy of taking their place. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock asks himself, “And would it have been worth it, after all… To have bitten off the matter with a smile, / To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question, / To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead’†And Raymond Carver, in his sloppy-drunk, scintillating What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, debunks the titular demi-god and then drowns it in martinis and silly conversation.

Johnston offers us a Lone Star beer as he fits the modernist sense of meaninglessness into a post-modern frame. He revives the great tragic moment, though the multiplicity of its reincarnations diminishes its significance somewhat. But what moves the reader is not the tragedy itself, nor the tepid dialogues in which more information is withheld than given, but rather the interlocking structure provided by the borders of a sea-side city. Corpus Christi, Texas, offers one wave of personal tragedy after another, accompanied by economic hardships such as civilian lay-offs at the local naval air station, hurricanes, and debilitating, humid heat. The city itself recedes into a long, flat psychological landscape with no horizon in sight. Its questionable haven is Southport, where one can fish and drink one’s fill, and the beach, from which Johnston’s characters often enter or exit the scene.

Johnston foregoes the much-used device of a unifying event or location that links strangers, their lives, and the stories’ plots. What provides coherence here are repeated tragedy types that visit different, unrelated characters who are sufficiently free of distinguishing personality traits, allowing the reader to focus on the aftereffects of pain, desolation and disappointment. Three of the stories, “Waterwalkers,†“Outside the Toy Store,†and “Corpus Christi,†depict relationships that have disintegrated because of the partners’ inability to deal with miscarriage or the death or terminal illness of a child. A novella in three stories, dispersed throughout the collection, describes the terminal illness of a mother who has never recovered from the death of her husband and her son’s efforts to care for her as she dies. In “Two Liars,†insurance fraud eventually ends a marriage, while in three other stories, a spouse’s implicit or explicit unfaithfulness does.

Tom Petty, who could have provided the sound track for this collection, believes that “even the losers get lucky sometimes,†but the protagonists of Corpus Christi Stories are all poor bastards who never, ever get lucky. That’s not the point. We’re not looking at a drowning people awaiting the inner tube of hope. The characters in these stories have already drowned—they’re just not dead yet; or rather, a good half of them are not dead yet. For this reason, the city of Corpus Christi, once elegant and well to do, but today known as the gateway to spring break hedonism and drug trafficking, provides a very apt setting for a collection about loss, haunting memories and numbness.

Regard its physical location and characteristics: it lies on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico; it is flat, covered in marsh grass. Whatever trees there are, mostly palms and scrub, do not engage the eye overly much, and do not interfere with the endless landscape that dissolves in the sea. The area is accustomed to ravishing storms that level houses, flood streets, and knock out power lines. The military that hover at the edge of the stories, are a transient people driven by economic necessity or the tired dream of patriotism. The more well-to-do residents of the city are likewise shadow characters. We see an architect groping the protagonist’s girlfriend’s sister at party in “Waterwalkers.†We notice, but are not introduced to, well-dressed, well-spoken office workers in the stables of “In the Tall Grass,†as the narrator’s father moves two horses that were given to the family away from the corrals of Edwin Butler, who, we assume, has had an affair with the narrator’s mother.

But we aren’t sure. Maybe he has simply insulted the narrator’s father by pointing out that the mother did not pay for the stables that month. Maybe it’s the cowboy boots and horses, but “In the Tall Grass†finally allows the narrator’s father to kick out someone’s bad knee in a fit of vengeance and spite. Maybe that’s not very sporting, but then, it’s not very sporting of a man to take advantage of someone’s clinically depressed wife either, pointing out a man’s financial impotency.

Though we are given all sorts of information about how bad it feels to be depressed, the particulars of each narrative remain a little hazy. In this sense, what Ronald Blythe says about Tolstoy’s technique in the introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilylich, could describe Johnston’s as well: The author “descends with agonizing leisure and precision into the dark places of the body. It is a poem … of the insurgent flesh, of the manner in which carnality, with its pains and corruptions, penetrates and dissolves the tenuous discipline of reason.â€

Like the city, whose most beautiful structures have known better days, the characters have known days colored by happier dreams. In “Waterwalkers,†Nora, who once proposed to her ex-husband with the line “Take all away from me, but leave me ecstasy,†eventually did lose everything—her son, her marriage, and her desire to become a nurse. While these losses did not bring her ecstasy, her efforts at moving on with her life were too much for the ex-husband narrator, who had built his life around bolstering her in her pain and sorrow. One imagines a sand castle with thick walls after a wave has destroyed the castle, leaving the water trapped in the wall’s moat. Edie, whom we meet in a mental hospital after a miscarriage and hysterectomy, must replace her dreams of motherhood with something new. We don’t yet know what that will be, but we are heartened to see her take pleasure in a poker game with another patient. Other characters dance at the local Yellow Rose, or live next to or above it. One can only imagine that they once had more elevated aspirations.

Despite the shattered lives that line the collection like beach glass, with their long-blunted edges and cloudy colors, the various narrators hint that things can, and will, still worsen. “But I wanted not to think of the future just then, only to hold tight that afternoon with my father and to stand between him and the life that would soon overtake us like a storm. I wanted to throw the saddles on the horses and ride, to prove to him that I was still there and all was not yet lost,†says the young narrator of “In the Tall Grass,†after his father is released from jail for assaulting the owner of the stables. Johnston’s depiction of Corpus Christi, half-there, gray and disheveled, is a brilliant background choice for the collection of stories whose characters are also neither here nor there. They stand, like the father of “In the Tall Grass,†as his son attempts to return to him the rings he had taken off before assaulting a man and being sent to jail, “looking at me suspiciously, as if I might be tricking or trapping him, luring him to reach for something that I would only take back at the last second.â€

Marcela Sulak is a literary translator and writer. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Fence, Indiana Review, Notre Dame Review, and Spoon River. She is currently writing her dissertation at the University of Texas-Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST