Book review: Crossing the River ; Scissors, Paper, Rock, by Fenton Johnson

Johnson, Fenton. Crossing the River. University Press of Kentucky, 1989, c2016. 230p. PB. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-8131-6647-6.

Johnson, Fenton. Scissors, Paper, Rock. University Press of Kentucky, 1993, c2016. 274p. PB. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-8131-6656-8.

These two landmark novels, first published in 1989 and 1993 respectively, have been reissued by the University Press of Kentucky in honor of the state’s native son, as he has just authored yet another work, The Man Who Loved Birds.

Johnson Crossing the RiverThese two novels are about families, influenced no doubt by the author’s own large family in rural Kentucky, in which he was the youngest of nine children. His writing is exquisite, careful, and clear.   Crossing the River concerns a young woman who crosses the bridge from the Southern Baptist dry (no liquor) village over to the Catholic village, where liquor and church (Catholic) were primary. She marries the owner of a prominent bar, much to the scandalous horror of both communities. They have a son, Magic, but she refuses to have more children, to the shock and chagrin of the Catholic community and her husband.

There is nothing “gay” about this novel except the author, who teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona and also at Spalding University in Louisville, KY. In his afterword, however, he says “As for Michael (i.e. the son Magic), he is on his way to becoming Raphael, chief among equals of the many characters of my second novel, Scissors, Paper, Rock. Crossing  poured the foundation for writing that novel, which would engage one of the great crises of its century — the AIDS pandemic and its far-reaching impact” (p. 214).

Scissors, Paper, Rock mirrors the author’s large family with many characters, plus the neighbor Johnson Scissorsspinster Camilla. Both novels are written in the third person, except for Camilla’s chapter in the later book: “But from the first, Miss Camilla insisted on speaking in the first person. I tried squeezing her round peg into the square hole of third person, since every other chapter was in third person and that seemed consistent and appropriate, but she was having none of it. Finally I let her have her moment at center stage, as she had so richly deserved: the spinster, the outsider, the watcher next door” (p. 250).

This novel is especially notable because it was the first to describe the impact of AIDS in rural America. The gay son, never really fitting in with the rough-and- tumble male life of his rural Kentucky village, escapes to San Francisco, but returns to spend his last days with his family, his siblings, his dying father, and their watchful neighbor Camilla, who becomes his special friend.

These novels are superior literature and are also entertaining. I highly recommend them for collections of serious gay literary writing and for readers who enjoy fine reads.

James Doig Anderson
Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science
Rutgers University

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