Lifestyle Reader's Edge the September 2023 issue

Fiction Is a Mirror

A review of Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock
By Scott Naugle Posted on August 31, 2023

It could be a regret resurrected or maybe a remembered smile or the pain of a loss resuscitated through a fictionalized scene from the author’s dark-ink pen. A sentient sentence is a lifeline, connective cellular memory among character, reader and author if, and only if, the author is a wounded soul, bloodied up through lived experience, a scribe writing in silence channeling the collective consciousness to flow through to the page.

Don’t expect a quick read once you begin Scissors, Paper, Rock. Do though expect to measure your own life against the Hardin family of Strang Knob in rural Kentucky. The author, Fenton Johnson, is so exceptional in his art that the page dissolves. Behind his words rests a mirror. You’ll pause frequently to gaze at yourself. 

Scissors, Paper, Rock

By Fenton Johnson

University Press of Kentucky


Fenton Johnson is the author of the novels Crossing the River and The Man Who Loved Birds as well as Geography of the Heart: A Memoir. He is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona and teaches in the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville. 

In Scissors, Paper, Rock, we follow the working-class Hardin family in rural Kentucky through the 1970s into the early 1990s. This introspective novel about the lives of the family is recounted, often through first person narration, as each character speaks through a chapter solely devoted to his or her perspective.

Tom Hardin, the patriarch, is fighting cancer and was recently laid off weeks before retirement from decades-long employment at a distillery. There is Clark, the son lost on a battlefield in the Vietnam War. Rose Ella is the matriarch who holds it all together, intensely in love with Tom Hardin, or so it appeared to me, but unable to discuss her emotions with him. Daughter Elizabeth builds a life in Los Angeles and cannot quite commit fully to her longtime relationship. Alcoholic son Joe Ray permanently disables his own young son in a car accident. And Raphael, a draft dodger who leaves for San Francisco, is the “artistic son,” returning home to convalesce but succumbing instead to his illness.

Too many of the characters in this novel don’t want to remember certain things, so they either bury their version of the truth or flee from the hard conversations that may bring them closer to it and to each other. In a rare moment of emotional honesty, Rose Ella speaks about the loss of Clark as a pale, thin Raphael listens during a visit home: “Raphael, the best thing about memory is that it forgets…I just plain won’t remember.”

I started this novel three times and put it down after a few chapters. I was afraid of it. The clarity. The honesty. The words had sharp edges, cutting into my life. It felt too close. I didn’t want to remember certain things. I’m from Pennsylvania, not Kentucky. Why were the scenes and familial interactions familiar? I knew some of the same unsaid words. Six years after the first attempt, I read Scissors, Paper, Rock clean through.

The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner notes in On Teaching and Writing Fiction, “Certainly no writer can see or know all or get all life into his fiction…It is the frame, the limitation, that produces for the reader the limited field of vision that can be seen under an intense light and in sharpened focus.” The “intense light” or illumination of a character’s inner dialogue, inflections and subsequently his or her outward speech, which a novelist brings into “sharpened focus,” reveals—or at least points us to reflect on and assume—what the characters cannot resolve for themselves. An author nudges the reader to notice what a character cannot, or will not, empowering us while simultaneously fooling us to believe we are wiser than Tom, Rose Ella or Raphael. We, conceited dolts that we are, would certainly have acted differently in our own relationships and not lost years to silence, missteps and unresolved differences. Fiction, wisely penned, is a mirror.

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