Friday, January 14, 2011

Short-a-Day: John Edgar Wideman's "Always Raining Somewhere, Said Jim Johnson"

Originally published in Harper's, February 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 27.

This simple story lacks enough ambition to justify Wideman's writerly tricks; at heart, it's about a frozen moment in which the narrator examines the sleeping, naked wife of his best friend, Rich, justifying his violation first by clarifying that because of the way Liz dressed, with a beauty that needs to be appreciated over time: "Why wouldn't Liz be pleased by his eyes on her. Didn't one eye pop open, flash gratitude, a wink of complicity. Given modesty, shyness, and Rich asleep beside her, how could she risk more." Then, slipping backward in time, he recalls a comment their other friend, Jim Johnson, casually let loose about Liz's hips, which he now perceives as either giving truth to the rumor that Jim was secretly nailing Liz, or denying it: "Slick Jim Johnson wouldn't hardly let slip to Rich his detailed interest in Liz's hips, would he, if he's backdooring Rich. Or Jim Johnson being Jim Johnson, maybe he would drop a dime on himself, confirming the rumor in his own inimitable, sly-boots, signifying, told-you-so-man fashion to spare his good buddy Rich the final ignominy of being the very last person in Iowa City to hear the truth." 

However, this bit of the story only occupies the final page: the first three establish that we're in the past ("He remembers rain's weight on his face"), dealing with a poet (he's come to Iowa City for the "fabled workshop") who then proves himself by describing the local bar and its meticulous but silent owner, Kenney ("his shock of white hair, lots for a guy his age, its crest awry as Samuel Beckett's"), and the rain itself ("heavy drops of rain blinding him, live creatures visiting his face, swarming butterflies with wings too wet to lift off and flutter away"). We also needlessly flashforward to May 24, 2010, where the narrator remembers the rain because of the distinct pit-pat-pit-pat sound of "in my garden in Brittany in France."

Oh, and Jim Johnson is sometimes dead, sometimes alive -- the chronology of that gets messed up with all of Wideman's jumping around, particularly with this line: "They'd celebrated absent Jim with a birthday party that night, innocent to the fact he'd be dead six months later." Couple this with the title, and the story twists itself into trying to be about Jim Johnson, some sort of weak digression on mortality, and that's where Wideman really struggles, for these moments remain murky; it's Liz (and maybe Rich) who we want to know more about.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Totally agree with you on this one. You can read more here: