Ethel Rohan, Goodnight Nobody
Publisher: Queen’s Ferry Press
2013, 121 pages, paperback, $19
AS WRITERS,we all have our little dictums. One of my favorites comes from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Familiar and memorable, it is the type of quote that stays with you—just like the work of Ethel Rohan. To her credit, Rohan is no mere statesman, philosopher, or divine, and her mind is certainly not little, as evidenced in her newest short story collection, Goodnight Nobody.
Ranging in subject and style, perhaps the only constant in this collection is brevity. Composed of thirty short-shorts, the collection revels in idiosyncrasy. From obsessive beekeepers to blind photographers to housewives with chicken wings, Goodnight Nobody features characters wild enough to be circus acts, yet human enough to be relatable. Therein lies Rohan’s strength as a storyteller: in foregrounding the peculiar, she reaffirms the universal.
Take, for instance, the story “Baby,” which focuses on birthday boy Mitch, who has just turned fifty. After a night of hearty celebration, Mitch finds himself alone with his gifts and takes to tearing them open. One gift particularly catches his eye: a grow-your-own-baby doll. Perplexed, yet intrigued, Mitch dunks the rubber baby into a bowl of water, per its instructions, and forgets about it until the next day:
Mitch returned to the kitchen the next afternoon, his mouth parched and his head thumping. He swore at the mess from the party and at the Tucson sunlight slanting painfully through the window. His vision adjusted to the brightness and he cried out. Overnight, the baby had outgrown the vase of water and now lay slumped over the mouth of the glass, dangling above the cluttered countertop like a corpse. When he reached for the baby and looked into her face, she seemed real, like a newborn, except lovelier. The ticking of his gold watch, his birthday gift to himself, sounded like her heart.
Lithe and crisp, this passage demonstrates the economy that distinguishes Rohan’s prose and also displays its lyricism. This moment is delightful not only for its language, but for its surreal play on reality. In an attempt at role-play, Rohan has cast Mitch in the role of father, a drastic departure from singleton status; however, instead of a hospital with family, he’s in his home, alone. Haunted by a recently failed relationship and his father’s infidelities when he was a child, Mitch’s inabilities to invest and commit emerge as his reality. As a boy, his father offers him a warning: “Never settle, son. Never.” As a man, we find he’s done just that.
Like “Baby,” most of the stories in Goodnight Nobody follow characters caught in or yearning for some form of domestic life. They are walking a tightrope—in perpetual purgatory. In “Priority,” a housewife entertains the wares of a college-aged knife salesman (think Cutco Cutlery and Vector Marketing). What begins as an innocent demo quickly turns into an intimate and revealing conversation:
Turns out we’re from the same state, the same one-church town, the same high school. I tell him more than I’ve told anyone in almost twenty years: I was married once before, to my prom date, for little more than twelve months. He asks my ex-husband’s name, wonders if maybe he knows him. My mouth hangs. I can’t remember my ex-husband’s name. My face warms. I cover my mouth with my hand. “Oh, God. Imagine that.” He squirms on my straight-back chair, his smile strained, and steers the conversation around to the heat wave and the latest fires in the Berkeley Hills. When I tell him my second husband is a forensic fire investigator, it strikes me as funny.
Here, Rohan’s genius shines. In a scene that approaches drab normalcy, Rohan throws a grenade. This moment is not life changing, but it permits reflection on her current marriage. Embarrassed by her candidness, the woman purchases a knife set, shelling out a “grand total of fourteen hundred dollars.” If that’s not surprising enough, the woman’s final moment with the salesman is: “The kid and I hold onto either end of the check. I want to kiss him, to tongue his wet warmth and taste the mint off his mouthwash breath.” With a probing eye, Rohan enlivens the disenchanted housewife narrative with expert precision.
Goodnight Nobody proves that the mundane can be magical. Through its focus on micro moments, it sharpens our appreciation for the luster present in the macrocosm of human experience. In presenting these strange and intimate portraits, Rohan shows us that the real “other” in society is not everyone else, but ourselves. We are all others. We are all the neighbor next door.