Distant Friends: Stories

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Tense families at the breaking point, people trapped inside self-preserving illusions, inhabit the totally convincing stories in this striking debut collection. In the title story, Lex, an aging hippie from Boulder, Colo., shows up too late at the hospital where his best friend's daughter is dying. He typifies Johnson's characters: they fail each other in little things that count tremendously, and in larger ways too. The 14-year-old narrator of "El Paso" comes to see that his Anglo aunt is an abusive employer of a Mexican housemaid. By contrast, in "Crazy Ladies"--set in Georgia as are many of these tales--the adolescent narrator forms a cruel, dehumanizing stereotype of an eccentric neighborhood woman. Ties of love and guilt bind Randall, a self-absorbed Philadelphia bodybuilder, to his handicapped sister Melissa, left behind in the South ("Passion Play"). "The Metamorphosis" uncannily probes the psychology of a female impersonator. Each of these 11 beautifully written stories reaches beyond its immediate circumstances to conjure a fully realized world.

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