February 2010

Beth Harrington


Irish Girl by Tim Johnston

To start with the bad news, Tim Johnston’s Irish Girl is not a collection of interconnected vignettes chronicling the exploits of a red-haired, step-dancing lass who speaks in a lilting brogue. The good news is pretty much everything else. Johnston’s stories are sharp and smart, infused with a small-town sensibility that renders them eerie and restless. “Dirt Man” commences the set with a jolt, as a laborer working on a bulldozing project in an auto salvage lot witnesses another man dig up a human arm, part of a woman’s body, that had been buried in the junkyard. Buddy Junior -- son of the man who once owned half of the company -- is back on the team after a mishap with a student at the college where he taught loses him his position. In “Water" -- likely the most brilliant piece in the collection -- a widow has an equally unsettling experience when she wakes up to the sound of water gushing from her pipes, and finds her teenage son outside cleaning something with a hose. A girl’s body is discovered drowned in a river after some sort of accident, and her son is wanted for questioning. “Things Go Missing” is narrated by Josie Kelso, a teenage kleptomaniac still grieving over the death of her mother and the loss of an older sister who ran away from home. When her compulsive theft habits are discovered, she is sent to a heavy-smoking shrink who claims to have dated Michael Jordan. It is a testament to Johnston’s ability to create diverse characters and situations that a scene in which Josie’s sister reveals a secret dragonfly tattoo reads with the dazzling vividness of a passage from a Francesca Lia Block young adult novel.

Throughout Irish Girl, themes and details are established and repeated with such precision that readers may get the uncanny feeling that these stories are interconnected, that the soul of a character in one story may re-emerge and take on a different body and meaning in the next. Such motifs include the rivalries attendant in male friendships, the sinister, criminal quality of a trusted friend or family member, and even comic book drawing.

In his author blurb on the back cover, Johnston makes a point of stating that he has worked as a carpenter for most of his adult life, and continues to do so, alongside publishing his writing. Though it is difficult to gauge the impact of such a craft on his fiction aside from the obvious -- descriptions of the bulldozing team in “Dirt Man,” the malevolent possibility of the man who designed and constructed all the houses in a neighborhood adding on a secret dungeon-room to one of them in the later story “Jumping Man" -- it does seem that carpentry has given him an eye for mapping things out without leaving any extraneous material around. Just as it takes repeated blows from a hammer to pound a nail into place, or the steady back-and-forth motions of a saw to split something in two, the stories in Irish Girl build detail by detail, with the finished product emerging as the sum of its deftly-crafted parts.

Everything does not always quite add up in these stories -- or perhaps in some cases the resolution may depend heavily on details embedded too deeply in the text -- but readers will enjoy using their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Writers looking to emulate Johnston’s style might want to consider taking up carpentry.

Irish Girl by Tim Johnston
University of North Texas Press
ISBN: 157441271X
152 Pages