Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rolnick's stories more than pulp and paper

Originally printed Oct. 27, 2011.

Josh Rolnick has a knack for anticipating and twisting his readers' expectations.

He sometimes does it directly — as when the narrator of his story "Funnyboy" finally blurts out, "By now I hear you saying, Spill it already. What's this all about?"

But more often it's simply part of his storytelling style. How he comes to the brink of melodrama and cliché but then pulls back at the right moment — giving readers just a second to peer over the edge of what could have been a sub-literary catastrophe.

Take "Funnyboy," for example. It's the story of a father confronting the teenage girl who crashed into and killed his 12-year-old son. The basic plot has all the makings for a tear-jerky after-school special.

But Rolnick isn't interested in such overt displays of emotion. His narrating father, Levi Stern, is overwhelmingly grief-stricken, but his grief comes out as snarkily as possible.

"It was actually less a letter than a heavily perfumed run-on sentence with postage," Levi says of the tear-stained letter of apology that cheerless cheerleader Missy Jones ("the girl who killed my son") sent to him and his wife.

In fact, there's something charmingly immature — something unfinished and mutable — about each of the different voices populating Rolnick's debut short story collection, "Pulp and Paper." Even his most responsible adult characters still have a lot of growing up to do as they learn to surive large and small life changes.

"Pulp and Paper" is an invitingly disturbing collection full of dead children, lost daughters, missing moms and animals who know better than their owners when to run away from dangerous situations. It's self-consciously "literary" collection that manages to avoid coming across as pretentious despite being full of stories set in the inn where Peter Benchley knocked off the last chapter of "Jaws" or of stories involving journalist characters who name their cats "Pulitzer." But it's also a collection filled with stories bearing compound titles and complex emotions.

Rolnick's stories, in fact, refuse any simple retelling.

It's little wonder, then, that Rolnick now has joined the ranks of John McNally, Doug Trevor, Thisbe Nissen and dozens of other writers as the winner of the University of Iowa Press's John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Nor is it surprising that his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices.

Rolnick will be reading from that award-winning new collection at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books.

Opinion page editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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