"I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son." So begins Josh Rolnick's powerful debut collection of eight stories (winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award), which utilizes a richly focused narrative style accenting the unavoidable tragedies of life while revealing the grace and dignity with which people learn to deal with them. The stories - four set in New Jersey and four in New York - span the wide geographic tapestry of the area and demonstrate the interconnectedness of both the neighboring states and the residents who inhabit them.
In "Funnyboy", a grief-stricken Levi Stern struggles to come to terms with the banality of his son's accidental death at the hands of Missy Jones, high school cheerleader. In "Pulp and Paper", two neighbors, Gail Denny and Avery Mayberry, attempt to escape a toxic spill resulting from a train derailment when a moment of compassion alters both their futures forever. "Innkeeping" features a teenager's simmering resentment toward the burgeoning relationship between his widowed mother and a longterm hotel guest. "The Herald" introduces us to Dale, a devoted reporter on a small-town newspaper, desperately striving to break a big-time story to salvage his career and his ego. A teenager deals with the inconceivable results of his innocent act before an ice hockey game in "Big Lake". And in "The Carousel", a Coney Island carousel operator confronts the fading memories of a world that once overflowed with grandeur and promise.
Throughout, Rolnick's characters search for a firm footing while wrestling with life's hardships, finding hope and redemption in the simple yet uncommon willingness to act. Pulp and Paper captures lightning in a bottle, excavating the smallest steps people take to move beyond grief, heartbreak, and failure - conjuring the subtle, fragile moments when people are not yet whole, but no longer quite as broken.
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Bitter and Sweet
Definitely. There are beautiful stories here, which is what kept me engrossed the first time through. But there were also so many great descriptions and turns of phrase and witty lines of dialogue that I didn't get to fully appreciate on the first round because I was focusing on the plot. I'd listen again so that I could have another chance to absorb those things. And these are also the kinds of stories that even though you've already heard them and know how they're going to end, you want to hear them again so you can hear your favorite parts repeated.
Avery in Pulp and Paper. His shifts between depression, hope, and heroism as the story progresses make him compelling; Rolnick makes it clear that Avery is no high-minded savior, that he'd rather just leave crazy Mrs. Denny to the flames, and yet he doesn't. He shows both manipulation and tenderness as he tries to get her to leave the fire, and that tenderness ends up being his death sentence.
Tweedy from Inkeeping. Fass does a great job of voicing Tweedy in a way that reflects the narrator's opinion of him--sometimes he seems warm, sometimes pompous, just as the boy imagines him. And I like that slightly gravely quality to the voice.
A great collection of stories. It's tied together by a nuanced understanding of how bittersweet love (or in a broader sense desire) can be, and of course by the New York/New Jersey setting. But at the same time the stories cover a broad range of characters and situations, and as I listened I never knew what the next story would bring. The writing is never glib or jaded--the emotion here is honest and bare-faced, without ever crossing over into the maudlin, something that's hard to find in fiction these days.
Mr. Rolnick is a great storyteller.
- Daniel M. Lewis