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Tom Chaney: Fenton Johnson, A Fine Voice from New Haven

Of Writers And Their Books: Fenton Johnson: A Fine Voice from New Haven. Tom says Fenton Johnson's voice is as vivid as a streak of fierce lightning over our Kentucky knobs. This column first appeared 16 October 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?

By Tom Chaney

One of the great pleasures of the last dozen or so years has been the illuminating, new voice of Fenton Johnson, come out of New Haven in Nelson County.

I have just re-read Scissors, Paper, Rock, a vivid amalgam of eleven closely interrelated stories of family, community, memory, love, and death. Upon rereading it I discovered anew the truth of the reviewer who said, "Read the eleven brief pieces of this brilliant novel and you'll never again hear its title phrase without feeling chills. . . . Emotional jolts lurk on every page.

"Every few pages you'll pause, realizing you've just read one of the best paragraphs you've ever come across. Yes, the book's about dying, but in the same way that birthday parties are about getting old."

The novel opens in Tom Hardin's workshop: his wife recently dead; he dying of cancer, an event that everyone expected to precede his wife's death.

His youngest son Raphael has come home from California dying of AIDS -- a fact that Tom either refuses to admit or cannot face speaking of. Raph is also fighting other "battles of his own. Not just AIDS, but anger, alienation, and an agonizing wistfulness," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The stories end, after swirling around the echoing chambers of memory, with the death of Raph and the musings of their neighbor Miss Camilla, daughter of an itinerant photographer who captured images of the community, then fled with money and pictures. She had come back to Strang Knob to teach and to be loved by Tom Hardin whom she understands better than he knows himself.

Miss Camilla has her father's pictures, but as she gets to know the community she learns that the reality of marriage, youth, and love as captured on film is quite different from memory.

Camilla destroys the pictures.

She rejected the love of Tom Hardin on two trips to High Bridge, first to send him back to his wife Rose Ella; and last to punish him and send him back to his dying son. "What would it have meant, after all this loveless time, to love a dying man? This is what it would have meant: forgiveness, learning to forgive."

"History is memory's skin, under which pulses the blood and guts of our real lives. Our stories are our ways of fashioning a surface with which we can live. . . . The truth lies not in the facts of the stories but in the longings that set them in motion."

And Miss Camilla stands as the Ishmael of the Hardins, presiding over and participating in the longings that set the stories in motion.

There are brilliant passages in this book -- pictures that linger after the last page is turned.

One cannot forget the image at the Hardin's annual party of Brother Hippolytus and Brother Cyril, from the monastery dancing on a table -- Hippolytus with a fake grass skirt wrapped around his robe.

And Raphael's recounting his encounter with love in San Francisco to Nick after that same party stands as a talisman to the intricate tracery of the heart.

Fenton Johnson is a major voice out of and about Kentucky -- a voice which is a delight to hear.

From his first novel Crossing the River -- to his sensitive memoir Geography of the Heart telling of caring for a lover dying of AIDS -- to his illuminating spiritual journey Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey, Fenton Johnson's voice is as vivid as a streak of fierce lightning over our Kentucky knobs.

This piece was first written in 2005. In reviewing Mr. Johnson's work, I determined to run it again [in 2009] in hopes that readers might get to know themselves better by sampling his prose.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-09-07 07:20:04
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