The stories in Dana Johnson’s collection “In the Not Quite Dark” take place in and around Los Angeles, the historical Pacific Electric Building in downtown in particular. Characters across stories live there, either the victims of gentrification or the unapologetic gentrifying. In “Because That’s Just Easier,” yuppie parents try to teach their child that there is nothing she can do for the homeless of downtown. When the girl observes a man prone on the sidewalk, she wonders whether or not he’s alive. Her father kneels down and says, “If he’s not dead … then it’s harder.” The girl decides by the end of the story that the homeless man must be dead then, because — as the title states — that’s just easier.
This is part of what makes Johnson’s work remarkable: She portrays characters both privileged and oppressed with empathy while avoiding cliché. They are constantly shrugging off preconceived notions that readers, especially white readers, may have when reading about — for the most part — black characters.
The stories all deal with race, with blackness in particular, but Johnson lets her fiction question the nature of that conversation, whether it is central or peripheral to what are unquestionably excellent stories. She uses boxes that popular culture often puts black people in and breaks them from within, calling further into question the nature of assumptions. In “Rogues,” college boy J.J. has no money or work ethic and complains that his brother Kenny, who works hard, spends his money on “jewelry or shiny tire rims… on health insurance for their dog.” The mix of what we’ve been taught to think of as urban“bling” and the suburban indulgence of pet health insurance exemplifies both the breaking of stereotypes and incredibly telling character details.
“In the Not Quite Dark” has a variety of voices and stylistic tones yet holds together tightly as a collection. It focuses on place, with its multiplicity of meanings — physical space, social status or rank, and the action of positioning oneself or others. Read Rest of the Review Here