Like the ghosts that hover just beyond the page in the award-winning Pulp and Paper (University of Iowa Press, 2011), Josh Rolnick‘s words swirl around your head before penetrating through all defenses to rest permanently in your fleshy core. Here lie tales that are hard to forget. The common thread between the eight masterfully-crafted stories is loss. Whether the soul-crushing death of a child or the abandonment of youthful notions of love, Rolnick exposes the hearts of his characters and through their vulnerability we are better able to see the ways in which we too have been successful (or not so successful) in coping with our own disappointments.
Set in New York and New Jersey, the stories seem quite disparate: a carousel operator remembering better times on the boardwalk, a teenaged couple struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, a young boy coming to terms with his mother finding new love, a newspaper man with the scoop of his career. But Rolnick finds the familiar in each of them and, like a good teacher, helps us to discover the hidden interconnections on our own, without belaboring. These are people we know and care about. Friends and family whose burden we want to lift, or at least to share. As observers of these everyday challenges, our human compassion is awakened, and the desire to reach inside the page to comfort and reassure is aroused.
In the titular story, the silence that follows a slow, painful, and preventable death is described as “vast and peaceful as a mountain.” I ached as I read these words. A tragic ending transformed into a teachable moment. What we yearn for is not necessarily what we need and the lessons that we receive are, at times, more painful than can be described with mere words.
The book object itself is as carefully designed as the stories contained within it, making this one best experienced in print rather than on an e-reader; an beautifully styled octavo nestling comfortably in the hand. This title is the first work of fiction that I’ve read after a (very long) self-imposed three-year break from such works. It has been a very welcoming return.