June 28: “Pulp and Paper” by Josh Rolnick

Hello, Story366! It’s been a rather uneventful Tuesday here in Springfield, Missouri, other than my family’s TRIP TO THE MALL!!! Why is that such a big deal? Because it’s the mall. We’re Americans. Is there any more symbolic venture in our society than a nuclear family heading to one of our great shopping emporiums? Really, it’s a testament to capitalism, to excess, to the auxiliary and the trivial. To America in the twenty-first century.

Actually, I’m not that skeptical of capitalism or malls or America. I guess I like all three, to varying degrees. But it was hot has asphalt outside today and we had to get our kids out of the house, and since we’d been saving up this mall trip for the better part of a month, to fill this very void, we used that card today and headed to Battlefield Mall.

The mall, when I was a kid and now, has represented certain things for me, and that’s something I’ve already mentioned: air conditioning. When I was a kid, my family didn’t have central air or even a window unit, so we went off to Southlake Mall in Merrillville, Indiana—the local mall, River Oaks in Calumet City, wasn’t enclosed and therefore not air-conditioned—way more often that I go to the mall with my kids. I used it for that today, but really, it’s just a chance to stretch our legs and look at all kinds of things we might want one day, but certainly don’t need. When I was a kid, there was a store called Karmelkorn where we’d always get a big box or tin or bucket of carmel corn; my kids like hot pretzels, so we’re a staple at Auntie Anne’s. When I was a kid, we’d duck into little toy and game stores, duck through the anchors like Sears and JC Penny, and each of us—me and my siblings—would get one little gift/item, something for five bucks or less; sadly, we do about the same for our kids, thirty-five years later and they still only get about five bucks, inflation be damned. When I was a kid, it’d take us a few hours to walk around the mall, but since it took forty-five minutes to drive each way, it seemed like an all-day thing, especially if we stopped at Sizzler on the way home; Battlefield Mall is just up the street from our house and much smaller than Southlake Mall, so no, not an all-day adventure.

Karen and I had similar childhood mall experiences, as we discussed on the way home today. One thing we had in common: We never actually bought clothes at the mall. Today, me and my family passed dozens and dozens of clothing outlets, the thought never crossing our minds to stop in, try something on, and take it home to wear another day. Same with our kids: They don’t care about clothes and we would never buy anything at the mall. Unquestionably, most of this has to do with price—Karen looked at skirt that we passed at Dillard’s that cost $125—but some of it has to do with training. When I was a kid, I got my school clothes at Venture and K-Mart (yes, I’m officially tired of tagging stores now, so I’ll stop; besides, you damn well know what K-Mart is), and if we needed something specific, a little nicer, Sears. Of course, there weren’t the high-end brand-name stores that malls have today, no Hollister, Aeropostale, Structure, Banana Republic, Forever 21, etc., as all the really expensive brand-name stuff was at Carson’s and Marshall Fields. These were two stores that my mother talked about as if only the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Trumpses shopped there, without question a class issue. We went to the mall for carmel corn and my kids go to the mall for pretzels, both generations of Czyzniejewskis looking at toys and games we’d ask for at Christmas. Those expensive clothes in the windows? They might as well be on fire, or made of shit, as we’d be just as likely to go in and buy any of them.

Now that all that is off my chest, let me get to Josh Rolnick, Pulp and Paper, and “Pulp and Paper.” Pulp and Paper won a John Simmons Award from the University of Iowa Press and is a cool collection. The book is split in half, the first four stories falling under the heading of “New Jersey” (and set in New Jersey) and the second part designated “New York” (you get the picture). I read a story from each section and liked them both, the stories in some ways as different as I could imagine, and in other ways, very similar (the settings are different but the insistence on and need for human connection are identical). The first story I read, “Funnyboy,” leading off the Jersey section, is about a dad who is reverse-stalking the teenage girl who hit his son with her car and killed him. The girl keeps showing up in his life, and before long, the dad figures out she’s following him, trying to talk to him about what happened, a chance he refuses to give her. I then read the first story in the New York section, the title story, and here we go.

“Pulp and Paper” starts with a train barreling across Western New York, a two-and-a-half page section told from a pretty distant narrator. Upon rereading this first section a couple of times, I realize it’s written in retrospect, as there’s some testimony from witnesses after the fact, witnesses to the train crashing into a plant, which I can best infer to be a paper mill. Rolnick skips POV then, after a section break, to Gale Denny a widow hanging around her house with her cat, listening to the train coming, hearing it crash, smelling the chemicals in the air and knowing something is not right. Skip again, after another break, to Avery Mayberry, a neighbor whose ex-wife used to check in on Gale, but who left after Avery cheated on her. Avery, knowing even better than Gale what this crash and potential chemical disaster is about to unleash, heads over to throw Gale in his car before flooring the fuck out of Dodge.

Only it’s not that easy, getting Gale out, as otherwise there’d be no story (except the train crash, explosion, and chemical leak, I guess …). Really, I can’t go any further without ruining it, so I won’t, but I really like how this story is written, what “Pulp and Paper” is all about, this interesting three-act structure, the first from a neutral POV, the second from Gale’s (actually a close third), and the last from Avery’s (again a close third). It’s not exactly how I’m drawing it up in my intro fiction classes this summer, but I like this piece because of that structure, the sensible POV switches. But I’m not trying to sell the plot short: And all of this craft stuff is on top of the heart-pulsing action that Skolnick writes, the actual story, which is well executed (action is hard to write). I enjoyed everything about this piece.

Pulp and Paper is, two stories in, a solid collection, revealing Josh Rolnick’s talents to me, talents I had not partaken in before. Looking forward to getting deeper in, to see what else he’s got in his arsenal.