John Dufresne’s Johnny Too Bad & Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother

by Jess

I’m baaaack!  It’s amazing how much time a newborn takes up.  He doesn’t do anything but eat, sleep, and poop, so why is it that my hands always seem occupied?

Anyway, I finally made a trip to the library last week, and I finished two really swell books: John Dufresne’s collection of short stories Johnny Too Bad and Mark Haddon’s novel A Spot of Bother.  They’ve both written other books, and I’m excited to read more of their work.

Johnny Too Bad was fun because many of the stories were related, about the life of a writer named John (how coincidental) and his very animated dog Spot.  I’m not sure why writers love to write about writers, but it’s very common.  What’s not so common is how Dufresne handled the matter.  Because not only does his protagonist share his name and vocation, but the character’s own fictional protagonist also bears striking resemblance to the character John.  John says in the title story, “I told Dad that Spot was in the book, that he belonged to the central character, a writer, not so unlike myself.  I told him the writer’s father had vision problems, so naturally he assumed the father is him.  I did not tell him that the writer and his father have a problematic relationship.  I did not want my father hurt by his misperception.  Even if I told him now that he’s not the character, he’ll think I’m lying.  Spot’s Spot, after all.  The writer’s a pathetic little scribbler who left his loving wife, after all.”  Ouch.

Dufresne is just as good at the long story as he is at flash fiction, and both types of story are displayed in this collection.  “Close By Me Forever” is a very powerful story about memory and love, and it packs a great twist at the end.  “Based on a True Story” plays with the form and condenses part of the story into a numbered list preceded by, “And then what happens is this.”  As much as I enjoyed Spot’s antics in the stories about John, I think “Died and Gone to Heaven” may have been my favorite story; it’s the kind of story that once you’ve finished, you can almost physically feel the author’s skill in crafting the tightly wound threads of the story.  For starters, the story opens with this magnificent two-page sentence, the kind you have to go back and start over a few times till you pick up on its rhythm.  It’s about an old murder, a family of really despicable people, and a police officer who can’t leave well enough alone.  The last sentences are every bit as beautiful as the first: “And he looked up into the clear night, saw the Milky Way splashed across the sky, and realized how everything in the universe was so far away, and was, he knew, speeding away from everything else in the universe, speeding away from him, this place, this earth, this small patch of bottomland where he sat bleeding and remembering, getting smaller and smaller.  He sank his hands into the soft clay of the bayou bank, shut his eyes, and held on.”  Another of my favorite lines appeared in “I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can Eat the Window,” after a funeral: “And while they laughed and drank, they were able, I suppose, to forget that they, too, were dying.”

I haven’t read Haddon’s prize-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but I’ll be picking it up very soon because I loved A Spot of Bother.  It’s about a man named George who finds a lesion on his hip, convinces himself that it’s cancerous, and subsequently develops a debilitating fear of death.  He sees death everywhere, and he suffers panic attacks wherein the floor falls out from underneath him, and he wedges himself between the toilet and the bathtub and softly recites nursery rhymes to himself.  Meanwhile, the rest of his family is falling apart: his wife Jean is having an affair; his daughter Katie is getting married, then not getting married, then getting married again; and his gay son Jamie is desperately trying to win back the love of his life before it’s too late.  Haddon is a marvelous writer, and he makes his characters’ unhappy lives very funny while still poignant.  And poor, dear George.  He must be the most sympathetic character I’ve read in quite a while; you just want to give him a big hug and tell him everything will be okay.

I’m headed out to the library again today.  Hopefully, I’ll find another couple of gems as delightful as these!  Happy reading, all.

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