Suburban life throbs with paranoid violence in the subtly skewed, futuristic world that Johnson envisions in this nervy debut collection of nine stories, each bristling with inventive energy. Trapped in their high-tech surroundings, his characters are unable to navigate a hazardous social maze, but unsure of how to live outside it. "Teen Sniper" depicts a sour aftermath of corporate meltdown. Fifteen-year-old Tim is the leader of a sniper squad whose targets are renegade employees. He struggles to think of flowers as he takes aim through Hewlett Packard's windows, an attempt at positive imagery that is cruelly mirrored by the sumptuous corporate flower beds below. Meanwhile, a touching tale of adolescent confusion unfolds: Tim can stop his heartbeat when he takes aim, but he still can't talk to girls. A sense of alienated adolescence pervades each of these nine stories, even those in which the characters are fully grown. Johnson conveys a powerful blend of stunted development and premature knowledge, showing emptiness and neglect in a harsh new light. In the masterful "Cliff Gods of Acapulco," the narrator recalls "the boxy loop of youth, a decade that leaves your ears ringing with television and loneliness," and Johnson seamlessly depicts the merging of teenage lethargy with adult introspection amid the havoc wreaked by a plane crash, a father lost in Africa and an assortment of vicious animals. "The Canadanaut" deals with isolation taken to a dazzling extreme: Canadian scientists live in "scientific seclusion" in the frozen wasteland of northern Canada, where they race to achieve the first moon landing. Each of these unusual, skillful stories exhibits a fierce talent, showcasing Johnson's quirky humor and slicing insight. Agent, Warren Frazier. (Apr. 1)
Forecast:Johnson, whose fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's and the Paris Review, has already attracted a small crowd of fervent admirers who should snap up his debut collection.