Fiction Review: In the Not Quite Dark, by Dana Johnson

A Review by Katrina Prow

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Fiction Review: In the Not Quite Dark, by Dana Johnson

by Katrina Prow

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In the Not Quite Dark

by Dana Johnson

Counterpoint ($15.95)

Dana Johnson is the author of Break Any Woman Down, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Born and raised in and around Los Angeles, California, she is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern California.

I met Dana Johnson last March at AWP, minutes before she spoke as one of my people for Women Write Los Angeles, a panel I co-designed and co-moderated with my friend Tatyana Branham. Johnson was our wild card. We knew the other women on our panel both professionally and personally (Hey Lisa! Hi HMV!), but Johnson was a last-minute add-on when another writer canceled. Both Tatyana and I did what we could to research, reading parts of her first story collection, Break Any Woman Down (2001), and novel, Elsewhere, California (2012), but the truth is we had no idea what to expect, writing discussion questions like, Will Dana like this? creating commemorative bookmarks thinking, Will Dana find this dumb? A couple weeks before the convention, Johnson’s story “She Deserves Everything She Gets” appeared in The Paris Review (http://www.theparisreview.org/back-issues/216). In my small West Texas apartment, I read the first line of her story aloud for Tatyana, “We are all sitting around a fire pit, talking about how not to get raped,” and I thought, Oh shit. This is going to be good.

Spoiler Alert: The panel was good—great, even—and I am sorry if you missed it. Helena Maria Viramontes took us to church when talking about the importance of street names, Lisa Glatt reminded us to celebrate the lesser-known places in LA county—wide and far-reaching and distinct in each way, and Dana Johnson talked about her Los Angeles, specifically Downtown, an area rich with history, diversity, and transformation. Johnson’s latest book of stories delivers place and people with total accuracy and heart. In the Not Quite Dark is a stand out collection proving Dana Johnson’s resiliency as a trailblazer for Los Angeles literature, writers of color, and women.

The collection starts strong with the story “Rogues,” a cautionary tale about being black in Southern California (read: America). Kenny, living in Palm Desert, opens the story with the dialogue, “There’s too many niggas moving into the neighborhood,” while his brother J.J., a graduate student from UCLA, explains “why it [is] uncool for a man of color to complain about too many black people in the neighborhood.” The main premise of the story is that Kenny has been robbed. He has called the police “who took their little fingerprints and whatnot,” but he has devised a better plan to “catch one of them Negroes tearing up [his] house.” The story unfolds as both brothers become infuriated with each other’s differences, with each of their individual identities as black men, one brother’s version not good enough for the other: Kenny drives a Hummer and blasts 50 Cent while J.J. drives an old Toyota without a/c, J.J. watches Oprah and shops at Ralph’s even though Kenny pushes Stater Brothers for cheap prices, J.J. is a steadfast supporter of Obama while Kenny is voting for Hillary stating, “Money pure and simple.”

Structurally, readers see the end of “Rogues” before it comes. This is not a comment on Johnson’s writing, but rather a comment on being awake in 2016, perhaps just being awake in general. By the second half of the story, after a few days with his brother in Moreno Valley, J.J. settles into a different identity, enjoying his temporary job of keeping watch for the robbers at night while drinking margaritas in the pool during the day to escape the heat. Of course, J.J. figures out the mystery of the robbers, a young neighborhood kid with a pillowcase from the same house Kenny had suspected, but by the time J.J. calls the cops, he is drunk, disoriented after a day in sun, shirtless and barefoot, “looking like an African. Like a Negro just rubbed Crisco all over himself and dared the sun.” When an officer appears and interrogates a flustered J.J., “Answer the question, young man,” readers know the unwritten ending though the narrative stops here. The ending for this story, Johnson’s goal, seems crystal clear, even though the story’s antagonist is somewhat ambiguous. Who are the rogues? Kenny, a stereotypical thug, taking the law into his own hands? J.J. who is more judgmental than his brother, expecting every black person to be a certain way? The robbers, punk kids who take from their neighbors, both physically and metaphorically? The police, whose lack of help got the brothers into this predicament in the first place? Johnson does not have to ask any of these questions specifically in her story, but nevertheless, readers are left to contemplate their answers.

In “No Blaming the Harvard Boys,” the complexity of internal and external race relations are also present, but Johnson shifts the focus in this story to also include a perspective on the myriad of expectations for women. This story is one of my favorites, possibly because I, too, am a woman who has gone to graduate school for writing (twice), and I, too, understand the unspeakable power of a boy’s club, that sinking feeling that you will never be enough because you are woman, or the wrong kind of woman, or from California, which isn’t literary enough. The plot for this story is rather simple, a writing program party, but the way in which Johnson retells the narrator’s participation in this party is at once haunting, real, and gut wrenching. In the beginning of the story, the narrator has her sights on the Harvard boys, two party crashers that seem too eloquent, too worldly, for this kind of house party: “They cared about African American studies, the Harlem Renaissance, understood the importance of Run DMC, N.W.A., Public Enemy,” whereas the narrator refers to herself as “Claire Huxtable.” After a failed flirtation with both of the Harvard boys, our narrator finds herself with an older man called the Irishman, who lures her into his lap and later his hotel room. At the climax of the story there is a series of power shifts. The narrator is silenced for being inadequate by the Harvard boys, and then the Harvard boys are silenced by the Irishman because they are outsiders, and the Irishman is silenced by the party host because it is her house, though the Irishman fights back because he is older, he is a white man, saying “I’m in charge of this.” This meaning: this place, this party, this woman.

The last paragraph of the story shows a switch from first person to second person, the narrator directly addressing the audience. First, she focuses on the party host who has broken “a wine bottle on the mantle” as a party’s over battle cry. The narrator asks, “what kind of woman does this,” though she is another kind of woman in an old man’s lap. Abruptly, the story shifts and Johnson writes: “Even if you’re a genius with lots of money, even if you have class, wearing slick leather shoes in the snow like you don’t care what anybody thinks, it turns out you still feel like you have to answer to somebody. I bet you: You’ve seen too many movies, and you believe what those movies tell you about yourself. You think they’re mirrors.” I thought about this story for a long time after I finished it; I felt unsettled the way a great story shifts the ground beneath one’s feet. I had to put down the book. I finished the rest of it on another day.

Ultimately in Dana Johnson’s writing there is a necessity of place: Downtown, tall buildings, noise, smog, no parking. It’s busy, a place for vacation, or a place to avoid. It’s also a place rich in juxtaposition: you either love LA or hate it, East or West, LA proper or the valley, from here or a transplant, celebrity or everyone else. Los Angeles is both the setting and centrifugal force in many Johnson’s stories, but especially in “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” “Because That’s Just Easier,” “Buildings Talk,” and “The Story of Biddy Mason,” the latter the subject of a brilliant interview between Johnson and Nastashia Deon at Los Angeles Review of Books (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/gets-tell-stories/#!) about Biddy’s rich, yet lost story in Los Angeles history as the founder of the city’s first black church. The setting in these stories is not overwrought with sweeping descriptions of the skyline or the environment, but rather revealed in Johnson’s use of aptly-placed nouns, showcasing LA living better than any adjective could. We see references to LA College, Bukowski, Cole’s French Dips, Pacific Electric Lofts, The Grove, LAX, Raymond Chandler, Skid Row, Hotel Cecil, streets like Sixth, Grand, Main, Temple, Spring, the freeways 110, 101, 105.

In the titular story, “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” Johnson writes about the aftermath of Elisa Lam’s death on Downtown residents, and main character Dean thinks, “Even before the girl in the water tower, [he] has been haunted.” The idea of Lam’s ghost is a peculiar one, not just because of her story: “that eerie security video he Googled, the last time anyone saw her alive, pushing the elevator buttons, lighting them all up, not going up and not going down, and, then, stepping out of the elevator into forever,” but also because of what it means to be a ghost in Los Angeles, not always a description of the physically dead. Dean remembers the Los Angeles he originally moved to: “The West was still wild and he had felt like a pioneer. It was rough, heroin needles, human feces, prostitution rough. No covered wagon packed with his belongings, but he had had an empty building that was almost entirely his and one hundred other people’s.” This LA is a ghost too, like the LA from 1905 and “the waves of immigrants who made their way […] they were Polish, Sri Lanken, Italian, and Mexican.” Just as LA’s history fades, so does Downtown, “it had changed on so many others before [Dean], people who had lived there for years before he had even heard of Downtown and so now he feels like an ass for resenting Starbucks—the Starbucks he goes to every day, even with the occasional junkie nodding off at the table or shooting up in the bathroom.” And perhaps this is why “Now, in the Not Quite Dark” became the title of Johnson’s collection, because there is no better way to summarize Los Angeles’s perseverance than through its waves of change, through the people who have disappeared into its system, the poor, the sick, the othered, and while we may not always see them, we can feel them, we hear their echoes: “everywhere ghosts […] there is always someone who has come before you, someone who is going to come after.”

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

A Review by Katrina Prow

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

by Katrina Prow

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Sweetbitter

by Stephanie Danler

Knopf ($15.00)

Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sweetbitter is her debut novel.

Stephanie Danler’s story is the stuff of great myths. I read about her luck one night during a time when, if I couldn’t sleep, I would Google: restaurant fiction, waitress novels, books about serving. The headline read: Waitress Is One of Many New Writers With Big Book Deals. An article in the New York Times. And her photo, which normally wouldn’t garner too much talk, yet the editor was smart to feature a large image before the type, so midnight readers could see her eyes—crystal blue—perfect hair, coy smile. Most writers are unremarkable. I had a feeling Danler made great tips. I clicked, Preorder.

I read that Times article over and over while waiting for the book to ship. Peter Gethers, senior vice president and editor-at-large for Penguin Random House, was a regular at an upscale restaurant in New York, where Danler, an MFA grad with a novel manuscript, was waiting and writing. The story is almost too saccharine to enjoy. Still, I was eager to read Sweetbitter. Writing restaurants, it seems, is sub-genre solely distinguished for chef memoirs, but the waitstaff, a lower echelon in restaurant hierarchy, rarely receive a point of view. Aside from Merritt Tierce’s 2014 novel Love Me Back and scenes of secondary characters serving our protagonists food and drink, the front of the house is tragically offstage in contemporary writing.

I devoured this book—fast—in a matter of four sleeps. It’s good, really good: Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is something delicious. It’s like that saying, The proof is in the pudding, only this time, instead of pudding we’re tasting crème brulee.

As an experienced server, I’m most invested in this first section of the book, titled Summer for the season our narrator Tess moves to New York City and starts working at an upscale restaurant in Union Square, a story not unlike the author’s. Tess is hired because she is a fifty-one percenter, which is restaurant speak for having personality, nerve. The other forty-nine percent is mechanics: “You know, just memorize the table numbers and the positions, stack plates up along your arm, know all the menu items and their ingredients… Know how to show up on time.” Danler is meticulous with the forty-nine percent, and readers learn about folding linens, wine varietals, steps of service, all the details of training down to hiding barmops and buying expensive nonslip work shoes before she’s awarded her stripes—a uniform. Tess screws up more than once as a backwaiter, whose duties include running food, bussing tables, making espresso, polishing glassware, and opening wine. It’s all too familiar and uncomfortable to read episodes of restaurant stress, but Danler makes it new by restructuring the scenes of chaos into centered paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness poems:

Table 43 is industry—Per Se?
If one more bitch cuts me off to ask for Chardonnay—
If one more person asks for steak sauce—
What the fuck?
Carson is in again—without the wife,
That’s twice this week.

Like a chorus, these poems give voice to a crazed cacophony of teamwork, which shifts into the restaurant’s omnipresence as character. Danler uses this technique to manipulate time, “all of service condensed, as if [Tess] only worked one night stretched out over the months.” These sections are bound to puzzle a reader not versed in restaurant culture, but there’s authenticity in the writer who uses unapologetic jargon, who orders, “Pick up!”

Summer ends when Tess is invited for a “shift drink” after one busy night. Her coworkers start in their own restaurant, finishing open bottles of wine and playing bar for each other while doing side work. They head to the local watering hole for last call, and then afterhours, and then more. Wide-eyed Tess asks, “Do you do this every night?”

Experienced readers already know the answer as Autumn begins, and Tess forms inevitable friendships with her coworkers, alcohol, cocaine. In the inherent debauchery, though, there’s a second narrative building: one about a beautifully cold bartender named Jake and the lead server Simone. Tess is obsessed with both of these characters, likely because they’ve reached an untouchable status in the restaurant, and while I understand both relationships, Tess’s awe with Simone is more complicated, and therefore, more rewarding. Simone is “Wine-Woman, a tree of knowledge, regulars demand to sit in her section,” the kind of woman who says, “Your self-awareness is lacking” as a means of backwaiter training. Simone works a server even when she is not clocked in, feeding Tess fancy wine, loaning her books about grapes, teaching her jazz, oysters, chanterelles—an exotic teacher to Tess’s student. However, the façade of Simone eventually unravels, and she, too, like Tess’s other coworkers, becomes painfully human—sad, even. Because readers and Tess receive the realization of Simone’s truth at once, it’s barbed and shocking and wonderful. Danler’s descriptions of Simone are spot-on, envious. Their fallout is unexpected and heartbreaking.

The third section of the novel, Winter, focuses on the evolution of Tess’s sexual relationship with Jake, which is predictable, only because Tess is so young (read: naïve) and Jake is a total fuckboy (read: bartender, tattoos, manbun). I won’t spend much time here because I have dated a Jake at every job, and so have you. The appeal is irresistible and obvious. Some of us read to learn, but there’s an exquisite delight in recognizing, Me too.

Perhaps the most resounding part of this novel, outside of restaurant specifics, is the writing of New York City as character, accurate with street names and businesses and real-life locations—the novel’s centrifugal force. Danler writes that Tess is “born” as she drives across the George Washington Bridge, and while I don’t relate to New York personally, I understand the buzz of living somewhere new for the first time. With all the obstacles at the restaurant, the love triangle between Jake and Simone, Tess’s only confidant becomes the city, and soon everything foreign transforms into the familiar like a kind of magic. After a sharp scene of too many drinks and not enough Jake, Danler writes:

The city was radiant and I felt untouchable. I experienced the boundlessness that ships cut from their moorings must feel. I experienced again that feeling of having money, paying the tolls, of being allowed to enter the race. Yes, I felt the freedom again, even if I couldn’t quite recapture the hope. I could have walked all night. All the times I’d been denied entrance, all the times I’d asked permission—but it was my city too.

In the end, Sweetbitter isn’t about New York specifically, or the restaurant, or even the love story. Tess ultimately settles into the most important thing: ownership of herself. And so we no longer have a novel about how to work, how to wait tables, the forty-nine percent, but rather, the fifty-one, “the tricky stuff,” put simply—how to be.

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