Published close to Johnson’s end, this collection ties up the loose ends of his work before his plunge into the afterlife. And it’s painful. The introduction is an illuminating and sardonic overview of his novels and acts as a final artistic statement: a legacy, an epitaph. But the short fiction pieces collected here show up the worst facets of Johnson’s work. All his pieces were semi-autobiographical to a degree, making it hard to separate the voice of his bruised male protagonists from the voice of Johnson. This is the case here, and the voice is condescending and arch: almost displaying outright contempt for Joe Reader. Johnson’s novels work because their dazzling forms are as moving and hilarious as conventional works—he convinces the reader of a way forward for fiction. He adopts the sort of 19thC voice he fought against in these stories, dripping an unpleasant arrogance over moments and people in his life, sniping against those stupid enough to read dime-store novels. The true Johnson was a compassionate, cuddly character, comically honest, so these stories are borne mainly from personal and professional frustration. Plus, unlike his novels, they offer no alternative to the standard short story form. In the final story ‘Everybody Knows Somebody Who’s Dead’ he composes a memoir while sneering at a creative writing textbook, but nowhere in the collection (except the longest piece, which is excellent) does he use original forms. These are embarrassments best left unread. Just as well it’s out of print, then.
I ain’t got no call to read no poems, but while I was at the NLS, I thought I’d have a peep at his first poetry collection. These were reasonable little efforts, set to strict metrical forms and not free verse, as you might assume. Johnson was a competent poet, writing about sixties London and the Welsh countryside, though he doesn’t have much of a voice. The best poem was a tribute to his mate Zulfikar Ghose, who co-authored this and wrote a piece about him in this.
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