The Neighbors’ Troubles

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Winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, Josh Rolnick’s debut collection, Pulp and Paper reveals the crisp details that line the crises of our daily lives.

In each of the eight stories comprising Pulp and Paper, Josh Rolnick’s debut collection, readers witness ordinary people facing crisis in their daily lives. The nature and extent of their calamities vary, as do the ways they respond. Yet across personal loss and environmental catastrophe, irreparable rage and distant ennui, Rolnick’s focus consistently grazes pivotal events and trains instead on the aching, everyday detail lining their perimeters. The result is an immersive look at the paths taken, decisions made, and habits formed in the wake of tragedy.

A teenage boy fights his mother’s evolution after his father’s death, and a journalist loses step with his beloved newspaper. A suburban father loses a child, while two boys in a seaside town clash with two attractive tourists. Many of these stories appeared as standalone pieces before the publication of the book, and their disparate plots may tempt readers to perceive each separately. However, the central theme of the collection ultimately makes itself known through consistent plot structure. Rolnick relies upon a fairly traditional framework, with climax and resolution appearing reliably around each narrative’s respective midpoint and end. Rather than spell redundancy, this technique gives credence to the intensity of each character’s experience. All incidents—be they large or small—are treated with care and delivered through to their conclusions.

In addition to structure, Rolnick’s stories thrive on consistent narrative voice. Where some collections use tone to draw jarring borders between their stories, Pulp and Paper delivers each account in the same unobtrusive, even-keeled prose. This is an impressive feat, given that several stories are written in the first person. Yet through subtle shifts in gear—a turn of phrase, a highlighted detail—Rolnick fills his pages alternately with bitter sarcasm, wistfulness, and teenage tension. The individuality of each narrator is preserved, even as the collection acquires a sense of the ubiquitous. The reader’s sympathy becomes less the curiosity of an observer, and more the pang of hearing a neighbor recount a personal tragedy just a few feet away.

Not every character’s role falls into the realm of victimhood. The father of the dead child carries a seething, unrequited anger that is palpable in its need to spread loss and grief. A couple caught on the brink of parenthood is so intent on settling covert scores that they appear ignorant of the impending arrival of their child. The orphaned teenager schemes against his mother’s new love interest and inadvertently threatens to unravel the family business in the process. Accident and culpability begin to intertwine, yet Rolnick offers no judgment or implicit lesson. This narrative modesty laces his stories with a hushed rhythm, like the toneless beating of a heart in times of panic. It is a rhythm felt by those just outside the epicenter of a tragedy, and Rolnick’s prose lifts their tales out of banality to render them all the more complexly human.

Pulp and Paper poses an intriguing question of geography. The idea of physical location is placed front and center, with four stories belonging to a section called “New Jersey” and four more to a section called “New York.” Set side by side, these locales inevitably elicit assumptions—the suburban against the metropolitan, the old against the new. One’s first instinct, therefore, is to expect two different sets of characters—perhaps even a subtle juxtaposition of culture and social class. Instead, Pulp and Paper shows no discernible pattern with either locale. Both story groups include characters residing in small towns, and both focus a great deal on natural surroundings. In the title story, the natural surroundings themselves propel the plot line. In another piece, the temperamental protagonist is named after an indigenous mineral. The basic commonality between “New Jersey” and “New York” may be Rolnick’s way of toying with the predispositions of his readers—drawing an artificial barrier among his protagonists and proving it superfluous. Readers are left to wonder whether there are events they have discounted in their daily lives as “not I,” not relevant—even as they’re shown the potentially terrible power of their habitat.

The interplay between geography—literal and figurative—and the process of carrying on lies at the core of Rolnick’s explorations. As his characters adjust to changed realities, they are often on the move: leaving in search of something, watching their love interests leave, fleeing in the face of disaster, or wishing departure upon others. Yet it is made clear that the act itself will not bring solace to all protagonists. This ongoing tension between the pain of moving on and the fear of being left behind is the collection’s central motif. Rolnick’s images are generally small: a flyer on a college wall, a “cheery beery bim bom Acura,” the banality of lettuce in a supermarket when one’s family has been destroyed. The themes he touches, however, carry the kind of universality that binds readers to a book.

*Author Photo: Nancy Williams

Ana Grouverman is a writer living and working in New York City. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, and you can see her writing here. More from this author →