Viking (2002), $24.95
San Francisco author Adam Johnson's debut collection of short stories is populated with characters who are usually young, often confused, and always victims of circumstance. In "Teen Sniper" an adolescent boy struggles to reconcile romance with the one thing he's good at, which is killing disgruntled Silicon Valley office workers; in "The Jughead of Berlin" a girl wrestles with a sea of identity crises in the days before ATF commandos raid her home; the young man in "The Eighth Sea" is trying to balance his father, an alcoholic seductress, and an army of ultra-fit missionaries bench-pressing for Jesus. It's America, only a little ... off: chillier, more Day-Glo, closer to the edge of panic. Johnson has a knack for vivid imagery and a deft eye for irony. Rabbits get catapulted for target practice in "The Canadanaut," which makes for lots of arch, audacious lines like, "Jacques was born to load the rabbit hopper." Our teen sniper imagines that he sees flowers with every direct hit -- head shots produce "a pink mist of baby's breath" and exit wounds are "like the new chutes of spring hibiscus."
Though Johnson's stories carry a top-shelf pedigree (having appeared in Esquire and The Paris Review) and Emporium is remarkably well blurbed on its back cover (by Bob Shacochis, Jennifer Egan, and others), most of the stories fail to distinguish themselves from the oceans of precious tales that regularly gurgle up from writing workshops. Too often, the point of the story gets reserved for that Meaningful Final Paragraph, plot is sacrificed for prettiness, and everybody speaks in detached, overwritten sentences. It's a promising collection by a talented young writer, but we've heard that story before.