Books: John Dufresne – Johnny Too Bad (2005)

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In an interlocking story with a few shimmering asides, John Dufresne writes about everyday love in his book “Johnny Too Bad” with riveting color and emotion. Actually, a character named John writes about them, or tries to.

Still, there are brilliant shards of light running through these pieces, which fit together as both yearnings for love and anxiety at having found it. They’re everyday stories, told in a way that’s anything but routine. In fact, when Dufresne risks failure, and that’s often, he comes closest to capturing love’s intimate agony but also its particular joy. These are stories about men and women, and stories of their failures, and that can be very difficult to do well.

Dufresne, a teacher at Florida International University, succeeds in Johnny Too Bad with a remarkable vulnerability, best understood through characters who are allowed not to know things, to misunderstand their own feelings. That gives the collection its emotional heft.

Johnny Too Bad is not a bog of melancholy memory, though. Dufresne’s stories — many set with the humid northeastern Louisiana landscape as a backdrop — are about love as strong as death, but they’re not cloying. It’s the kind of drunk and funny love that makes being crazy acceptable.

Subtle, never grandiose, he writes with the muscular poignancy of every great Southern writer.

That’s why it’s always worth noting that Dufresne isn’t from anywhere near the South, though he also taught at the former Northeast Louisiana University for a time in the 1980s. Perhaps an outsider like the Massachusetts-born Dufrense understands some things about us better than we do.

As with his celebrated novel Louisiana Power and Light, a smattering of familiar places from around NLU are mentioned — Saterfiel’s Sack ‘n’ Save, Crawfish City, Fink’s Hide-a-Way, the Rendezvous — and that always brings a zing of recognition, like bumping into an old friend. There seems to be an insistent pull for Dufresne too, something that brings him back to this part of his past.

Late in the book, John talks about the struggle to frame an interesting fiction in such complex and troubling days. Perhaps the setting of an almost never-changing South eases that burden some. Dufrense’s sharp eye for the particular — say, Spot the dog’s consistently distracting and delightful machinations — certainly underscores that timelessness.

Throughout, heartbreak is presented in all its domesticity, as a place where comfort might be found — as in “Breaking it Down for You” — in small distractions like Little Debbies or the 700 Club. That’s not offered as country-fried bromide: Both are admittedly sweet and spiritual, but also sometimes too simple and a little scary.

Why would this accidental tourist know us so well? Because Dufresne apparently watched us with uncommon openness, saw what we accepted, then put his own voice behind it. He’s the type of writer who would note that this area was once a farming community, but the only thing we grow around here anymore is old.

That’s sad, and funny at the same time. And so perfectly John Dufrense. May we grow old together — with one of his wise and oddly lovely books on the nightstand.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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