A MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of both an NEA grant and a Guggenheim fellowship, and the author of more than 10 works of fiction and nonfiction, Charles Johnson is more than a little prolific. His novel, Middle Passage, won the 1990 National Book Award while his latest short story collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories is sure to crack apart any notion that today's fiction could ever grow stale.
In this collection, stories are vehicles for conveying philosophical conundrums or questions of self. Moving across cultures and through centuries, Johnson creates worlds where a man's dreams are taxed and Dr. Martin Luther King has a revelation while perusing the contents of his refrigerator one long night. Historical figures such as Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes and the aforementioned Dr. King make appearances, and in one of the best stories, "Executive Decision," Johnson addresses the issue of affirmative action with grace and insight, accomplishing more through his characterization than any lawmaker ever could.
Though the issues and ideas that concern many of these stories are heavy, the prose never is. In "The Gift of the Osuo" Johnson describes an elderly African sorcerer as "brittle and serious in his leather cap and robe . . . bald as a stone, having around his head a few puffballs of gray hair like pothers of smoke." In the title story the reader watches as Dr. King "picked up a Golden Delicious apple, took a bite from it, and instantly prehended the haze of heat from summers past, the roots of the tree from which the fruit had been taken, the cycles of sun and rain and seasons, the earth, and even those who tended the orchard."Johnson's prose is solid yet playful, restrained yet vivid. His characters are more than colorful and he never falls prey to taking himself too seriously. In essence, these stories are modern fables, tales that, with unsettling subtlety, linger with you long after the book has been put down.
Lacey Galbraith is a writer in Nashville.