Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than 20 years before entering the MFA program at the University of New Orleans. She completed her MFA in 2008. She lives and writes in New Orleans. More of This World or Maybe Another is her first book.
"By the time we’d read the opening of 'Killer Heart,' we knew Barb Johnson would deliver something special. Her fiction is expertly crafted, nimble, full-hearted and affecting."
“What a pitch-perfect, utterly original, dazzlingly flexible narrative voice Barb Johnson has. . . . a truly exciting debut.”
"These are stunning stories . . . the kind that reveal, enlarge, and make living seem worth the trouble."
Barb Johnson, author of More of This World or Maybe Another, worked as a carpenter for more than twenty years in New Orleans. I suspect Barb Johnson was a fine carpenter and built great things. She certainly created nine exceptional stories in this debut short story collection.
More of this World or Maybe Another traces the lives of several unlikely friends and loves living amidst the poverty, violence, and marginalization of New Orleans’s underclass. Through these excellent stories, Johnson offers us a welcome window into a place and people that are all too often overlooked and devalued.
Johnson has a great talent for titles, and the stories behind them consistently live up to their promises. Throughout this collection, Johnson displays an enormous gift for storytelling, characterization, and fresh, evocative language. More, the tenacity and individuality of the collection’s heroine, Delia Delahoussaye, jump out even in the opening lines:
“Delia has to walk past A.J. Higginbotham and his crowd to get to the gym, which is where the dance is. The boys are installed on the railing under the long breezeway like they’re at a livestock auction, cans of Skoal wearing their way through back pockets. Delia raises her right hand and shoots the bird at the line-up for the entire fifty-foot walk.”
By the end of this gripping title story, I was inside the page, urging Delia to “Do it. Now. Now.”
The collection’s second story “Keeping Her Difficult Balance” further reveals Delia’s torment: vacillating between how she is expected to behave (get married and settled) and what she knows to be true (her homosexuality and need for emancipation). Johnson draws her characters with enormous honesty and compassion, and even as I cheered for Delia and Maggie in this story, I also felt great sympathy for Delia’s fiancé, Calvin — further testimony to Johnson’s lavish skill.
By the end of the next three stories, “If the Holy Spirit Comes for You,” “Issue Is,” and “Titty Baby” I felt a growing tightness in my chest and heightened pain in my throat, similar to the sensations that come from swallowing a too large lump of ice-cream. My discomfort, alas, from far less innocuous causes. Rarely before have I felt such an overwhelming ache to reach inside the pages of a book and comfort characters. Yet that’s just how I felt for Dooley and Reet, Delia and Maggie, and Pudge and Belinda respectively.
As I read on, my emotions continued to take a beating as mastery and truth resonated from these pages (from “The Invitation”):
“I hand Luis the old valentine, proof of some bygone love. ‘Bring this to your Mama,’ I tell him. ‘Girls like to know they’re wanted. Even big girls. Especially big girls.’”
Even the one story that I found least powerful, “Killer Heart” (where Dooley leaves his baby daughter, Gracie, inside his car in searing temperatures), has stayed with me. Indeed, I found that I missed Delia when she was absent or played a small role in a story. Perhaps because I am so connected with her from the outset. It may well be a drawback in interconnected short story collections to unevenly represent recurring characters, particularly the hero or heroine. Regardless, this collection is stellar.
The collection closes with “St. Luis of Palmyra,” and ends as it began with a young protagonist, this time Luis, struggling to break free of shackles. However, this is a much darker, more violent and disturbing tale than the opening story. As this final story unfolds, we again witness great suffering and savage cruelties, and how even the oppressed will in turn oppress. Yet this story, like the rest of this collection, is also about transcendence, redemption, and ultimately a belief in the human spirit. More than anything, this searing collection offers us hope, however slim the crack of light.