The only thing I could think of while reading this is that it´s what that sensitive druggie high school dropout I always wondered about finally did with himself. If you didn’t have someone like that in your high school, for a stand-in you can just picture Jordan Catalano from “My So-Called Life” (the Jared Leto role). Except uglier. . . much uglier. This is the book he would have written 15 years after dropping out, after almost OD-ing several times, getting a bunch of other idiots hurt or killed and then finally cleaning up his act.
These are highly compelling stories about a generally despicable man trying to find his way in the world. Amazingly despicable, actually. “Ugly beauty” is a good oxymoron for this stuff. It’s full of despair and cruelty and it could very well depress the hell out of you, but there’s a strand of Buddhist wonder that permeates the whole enterprise. Johnson’s really good at finding awe and beauty in the most horrible of places, and it’s an impressive juxtaposition in these otherwise bleak essays.
His language is incredible as well. It’s almost as much poetry as it is prose, with a loose, swingy rhythm and the random yet spot-on metaphors and imagery that leave you with little doubt as to Johnson’s druggie credentials. There’s a wonderful ambiguity in a lot of these devices; sometimes it’s too much, but most of the time it imparts a wonderfully dreamy (or is it trippy?) feel.
Only a few of the stories didn’t work for me. My favorites were: “Car Crash While Hitch-Hiking,” “Out on Bail,” “Dundun,” “Work,” and “Beverly Home.” Johnson really has a knack for powerful endings, and I’ll check out more of him some day. I would recommend this to anyone with at least a mildly twisted taste. . . someone who can handle the often shocking doings of this demented narrator. If you’ve read Poe Ballantine, who I like a lot and also recommend, this will give you the feeling that he owes a lot to Mr. Johnson.