The stories in Dana Johnson’s collection “In the Not Quite Dark” take place in and around Los Angeles, the historical Pacific Electric Building in downtown in particular. Characters across stories live there, either the victims of gentrification or the unapologetic gentrifying. In “Because That’s Just Easier,” yuppie parents try to teach their child that there is nothing she can do for the homeless of downtown. When the girl observes a man prone on the sidewalk, she wonders whether or not he’s alive. Her father kneels down and says, “If he’s not dead … then it’s harder.” The girl decides by the end of the story that the homeless man must be dead then, because — as the title states — that’s just easier.
This is part of what makes Johnson’s work remarkable: She portrays characters both privileged and oppressed with empathy while avoiding cliché. They are constantly shrugging off preconceived notions that readers, especially white readers, may have when reading about — for the most part — black characters.
The stories all deal with race, with blackness in particular, but Johnson lets her fiction question the nature of that conversation, whether it is central or peripheral to what are unquestionably excellent stories. She uses boxes that popular culture often puts black people in and breaks them from within, calling further into question the nature of assumptions. In “Rogues,” college boy J.J. has no money or work ethic and complains that his brother Kenny, who works hard, spends his money on “jewelry or shiny tire rims... on health insurance for their dog.” The mix of what we’ve been taught to think of as urban “bling” and the suburban indulgence of pet health insurance exemplifies both the breaking of stereotypes and incredibly telling character details.
“In the Not Quite Dark” has a variety of voices and stylistic tones yet holds together tightly as a collection. It focuses on place, with its multiplicity of meanings — physical space, social status or rank, and the action of positioning oneself or others.
In “The Liberace Museum,” Charlotte visits her white husband’s family home in the South. When her father-in-law says, “I’ve been all over the world. … And no matter where I go, I know my place,” there is a hint at possible reproach — is he saying Charlotte doesn’t know hers? Or is he really only referring to his heavy Southern accent? Johnson doesn’t give us answers, but her questions form meaty, satisfying stories.
In 2001 Johnson, who now teaches at USC, was the recipient of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The 2015 winner is Anne Raeff, for her collection “The Jungle Around Us.”
The connective tissue of Raeff’s stories is displacement, whether from home or societal conventions. Her characters are all fleeing — physically or emotionally, running away from war, from discrimination, from spurning lovers.
In “After the War,” a doctor and his wife left Vienna for Bolivia during World War II, and when it ended immigrated to New York. It is a haunting tale of trauma, told subtly through a simple narrative. Karl, the doctor, misses Bolivia “where nothing ever changed, even though they had a coup every six months.” His displacement is not only physical but also speaks to a loss of intimacy. He had a friend in Bolivia — an alcoholic priest who had no interest in quitting drinking. The priest once told Karl, “You have been sent to me by God to relieve me of my own thoughts. I have had conversations with only myself for so many years that I had nearly forgotten that there were people to talk to, not just people who list their sins and ask for forgiveness. And who am I to grant forgiveness?” Indeed, in a wartorn country, with genocide underway in Europe, it is hard to see a priest having any authority to grant forgiveness, especially when he is a sinner too. Karl is bereft without him in New York, especially as the priest’s words about his wife keep coming back to him: “Your wife is very beautiful and very unhappy.”
While Raeff is more subtly political than Johnson, she speaks to identity as well. In “The Boys of El Tambor,” an epistolary story about a woman who has left her unfaithful girlfriend, the narrator describes a gay bar where the drag queens yearn for Amsterdam where “a girl can be a girl and walk down the street in heels without have rocks hurled at her.” The narrator muses to herself, “I suppose my life could be worse. I could have been born a queen in Mexico.”
This ability to fit unfortunate truth and acknowledgment of privilege in one line is typical of Raeff’s work. Her stories emerge from what is clearly a socially conscious place, but it is never spoon-fed to readers. These are truly good stories, full of emotion and energy. Her style is uniform, quietly lush, with a distance between narration and story where atmosphere lives.
Where Johnson’s stories will put you directly on the ground with her characters, Raeff’s will let you watch them through binoculars, peering in close enough to read their lips but not always their hearts, giving them a private, appealing inner life.
Masad is an Israeli American writer living in New York.
Counterpoint: 225 pp, $16.95 paper
University of Georgia Press: 160 pp., $24.95