PULP AND PAPER By Josh Rolnick (A Review by Sara Lippmann)

University of Iowa Press

192 pgs/$16

Reading is a solitary experience. We sit alone, we read alone; and yet, in the hands of an adept and gifted writer we are never alone. We are in the trusted company of characters whose lives matter, whose actions, no matter how seemingly routine or inconsequential, set off a ripple effect in their lives – and by drawing us in and forcing a close examination, in our own as well. Winner of the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press, Rolnick’s graceful debut makes a steady and steadfast companion. The eight stories in Pulp and Paper hinge upon the slippery fault lines of before and after, some of which are minor in scale, an impulsive misstep, an error in judgment, others more catastrophic. At the end of each, however, no character is the same. Neither is the reader. The bond between them: lasting, inextricable.

Where character transcends, setting takes root. The local flavor is so pervasive, so integral to each story – the collection is even structured by geography – that it is impossible to discuss narrative without considering place. There is an almost Irish quality to the way each story rises from the land, the subdued richness in soil, sand, the proximity to sea. This is the East Coast. We’re not talking sights that are Seven Wonders spectacular nor grotesque in their sensationalism. One can’t help but think of William Trevor in the way Rolnick instills a palpable quiet to the landscape, which allows him to carefully plant tension and grow drama. Like Trevor, Rolnick shifts between one of two places – not Ireland or England – but New Jersey and its neighbor, New York. The struggles of each character may feel limited, mundane, even – adulthood, forgiveness, independence – but their reach is universal.

The first half of the book is devoted to Rolnick’s home state of New Jersey. Appropriately, perhaps, the collection opens on the commuter train – only this in no Westchester-bound 5:48. “I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son,” begins “Funnyboy,” a stunning, difficult tale of grief and humanity in the aftermath of loss. How does a father confront the person responsible for his son’s untimely death?  And what, when that person is no more than a child herself, a typical teenage girl, and the tragedy the result of a mere accidental flash of adolescent carelessness? “What good is the truth if it illuminates nothing?”

“Innkeepers” and “Mainlanders” are set on a fictional Long Beach Island, a locale unmistakable and personally dear. “We lived on a barrier island, eighteen miles long, a mile at sea, thin as a pipefish, that slashed up the New Jersey coast on a diagonal. Once upon a time, there’d been a ferry service from Shady Cove and train lines from Philly and New York, but when we were kids, the only way on or off without a boat was via the Causeway – four lanes, two in each direction – a bridge with tubular fluorescent rails that skipped across the Great Bay in two arches, major and minor, like a rainbow with a little extra gas.”

The skinny spit of an island is a ready metaphor, and Rolnick deftly mines it for the local perspective. Unlike some beach towns, this place becomes pretty deserted in the off-season, when “Innkeepers” is set. “In December, it was so empty we turned all the stoplights on the boulevard to flashing yellow and bumped up the speed limit to forty.” Although unspoken, the ache of the past consumes the present, as Will, the 15-year-old narrator, must witness, bristle against, and ultimately come to terms with his mother’s newfound affection for a long-term guest, years after Will’s father’s drowning. Observing the initial encounter between his mother and this stranger, Will notes, “It was a smile without a number. A smile I hadn’t seen in years.” As in “Funnyboy,” loss is everywhere, and yet, unlike the desolation of the island, all is not bleak, as the story takes a turn toward acceptance, hope and repair.

With its offerings of laughter and light, “Mainlanders” arrives at a perfect spot in the collection. It is an irresistible pleasure. A coming-of-age tale of two young locals trying to make it with a pair of visiting “mainlanders,” it contains all the charm and anticipation of a feel-good movie in that it’s utterly relatable: we have all had a cringe-worthy definitive moment like this. “They were Mainlanders. They didn’t know us from Neptune. It was a chance for Tubby and me to be Tubby and me, free and easy.” Of course, like many summer romances, this encounter is doomed from the start, but what sets this story apart from others of its kind and makes it a favorite is Rolnick’s restraint. After everything, Nick Swan’s voice is pitch-perfect and just on the brink aboard a final carnival ride: “Then the turbine kicked on and the wheel began to turn, and I started down the other side.”

The train returns as connective tissue in Pulp and Paper’s second half, focused on New York stories. This time, carrying toxic chemicals, it derails on its approach to Viridian Pulp and Paper, triggering an irreversible tragedy. The train is not the only collision in the title story. The lives of neighbors Gale Denny and Avery Mayberry intersect in the heat of emergency, and an act of compassion has a devastating outcome. First, a cat goes missing, “It was only the slightest slippage. But panic is the rockslide that starts with a single pebble.” Then, Denny, a widow whose husband once taught her always to think “about what was happening at a point in time on the other side of the earth” if only as a means to stave off loneliness, shows up at the doorstep of a similarly solitary Mayberry to ask for help. The plant, the spill, all of it’s senseless in the face of nature’s delicate magic. “Giant cauldrons of wood pulp simmering at three hundred fifty degrees. Heavy black liquor and quicklime and chlorine gas. All to make paper. And yet there were wasps … that made paper from dead wood and spit. Less than an inch long, he thought, as he slipped between two weeping trees in the vapor, and they’d been doing it that way since the dawn of time.”

Although set in New York, Rolnick has not written city stories, but rather, those that cling to the outer boroughs, the outskirts, upstate. In Big River, a young couple faces a crucial choice – to have a baby and swaddle themselves in the safety of their small town, or break free of the hold tightening its grip around them. Garnet and Finch are direct products of their environments: “Garnet and me, we were like Big River after it’s collected all that winter runoff from Jones Creek and Moose Drink Stream, made the wide turn around Big Bend, and funneled into the gorge. We had our ups and down, but we’d loved each other since Lady Lizard and Sir Salamander. What the hell could stop us?” (The answer lies in wanting different things.) Guilt haunts the lovestruck protagonist of Big Lake, while Carousel closes out the book with its ode to a bygone era. The poignant longing to hold on, for another turn around a past that has cycled and slipped through the Coney Island ride operator’s fingers, speaks to the whole collection. “For an instant, I heard the sound of a carnival on the breeze – the distant cry of a lonely barker and the laughter of young love. Then, as quickly as it had come to me, it was gone.”

Perhaps what I admire most about this collection is how true to itself it is. There is something wonderfully refreshing, almost unfashionable, about Rolnick’s vision. His stories beat with full, sturdy hearts, unapologetic in their Munro-like length and body. He has no interest in exhibitionism or postmodern gimmicks; nowhere does the writer’s glittery hand wave, look at me! Loss and disappointment may be the currents running through these pages, but there remains hope for humanity. Compassion never gets old. He allows his characters room to breathe and lets them falter without judgment. Each story is patient in its build; in the same way that Rolnick himself was patient in his placement of each individual work previously in literary journals. He trusted his own process, staying with and working his material over years, twelve, to be exact, which he wrote about in an instructive piece for The Millions.  The reader feels that gentle balance of humility and confidence in the stories of Pulp and Paper. And that is what makes them timeless.

*

~Sara Lippmann is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on twitter at ….~

  • This is a Hell of a review! Makes me want to read the book – NOW! Very well done indeed.