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Things Fall Apart

Rob Roensch’s Baltimoreans are on edge

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In “The Crack-up”—one of the best things ever written in Baltimore—F. Scott Fitzgerald describes two kinds of breaking down, something he knew about all too well by the time he wrote it. The first kind comes from the “big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on.” The other kind of crack-up is started by the blow “that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

The stories collected in Rob Roensch’s The Wild Flowers of Baltimore (Salt) play with the tensions between these two kinds of cracking up, moving deftly between the dramatic present and some past event echoed within it. In “A Girl Called Random,” the narrating husband and his wife visit her parents for Christmas and end up at a Christmas party in Roland Park, “more or less an enclave of rich white people in the middle of the poor black city.” The wife begins to act strange and abandons her husband shortly after they arrive. In a beautifully absurd conversation with another guest about “circumcision masks,” the narrator learns that the girl these people remember is not the same woman he thinks he knows. What accident? She never told him about an accident that had everyone so worried? The past event was not a big dramatic break so much as a small one, but their discussion of it reveals the real issue at hand.

In the story called “Hairline Fracture,” a father takes his daughter to the hospital after “a game of freeze tag that drifted too close to the swing set.” The title doesn’t refer to his daughter’s injury, but one he suffered as a kid—and the story spins around the widening of that hairline fracture through his life, unrecognized until he tells the father of the kid who hurt his daughter to fuck off. Then the stress fractures that have come to define his life become clear in the distance he feels between himself and his own father.

Not all of the stories in this exceptionally skillful book follow this pattern. “John’s Story” begins with a kid who is “quiet and folded in, but not at peace,” and follows him through his enlistment, training, drudgery, and ultimately something resembling combat in the Army. It is the kind of story every American male writer used to write because it was a widely shared experience. Today, such stories are rare unless they are the centerpiece and focus of a book about war. It is full of beautiful, mundane moments: “Soon it is the time of last things: the last trip to the mall, the last pot roast, the last summer rainstorm. He stands at the screen door and stares at their crummy backyard.” Everything John experiences is kind of crummy, but he does his best within the confines of that crumminess; there is no looking back, no series of small cracks—instead we see the character grow up, as if in a classic Bildungsroman. The breakdowns are left for the future beyond the story.

“Henry,” by far the most delightful story in the collection, presents the relationship between a young woman and her boyfriend who periodically comes to believe he is Henry David Thoreau, creating a comically reversed Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. When the woman calls on a cellphone to ask why the door is locked, the boyfriend says, “There is a woman’s voice in this object. . . . The human voice is as water in a vacuum.”

“This is happening again, isn’t it?” the woman asks him, but he only says, “I can hear a voice. The air has a voice. The air has a woman’s voice.”

The story may seem like a gimmick, but it works surprisingly well, far better than it has any right to, largely because of the understated voice of Roensch’s third-person narration whose extraordinary flatness allows the drollness of the scenario to end up more like a Donald Barthelme story than a Shouts and Murmurs column in The New Yorker (though, come to think of it, “Henry” would make a hell of a Shouts and Murmurs).

Novelists and essayists alike can build a book on a single, singular voice. But the writer of short stories must produce a dozen or so believable voices. When Roensch fails, it’s because he can’t quite seduce us with yet another narrative tone. “Dark Molly” seems to reach for the suburban teenage ghost angst of the first season of American Horror Story—but with passages like, “I see in the mirror the ash cross still black on my forehead, forever, but my eyes are gone,” it feels like a dreadful teenager actually wrote it.

“The Customer” seems to start out with a similar pretense. “I have been waiting here all day and I have been waiting here all of my life to save you, and I have not saved you.

“I have not saved you, but I don’t want to stop speaking, even though this is not my voice,” Roensch writes early in the story.

It is difficult to eliminate what Janet Malcolm calls the “pretentiousness, intellectual shallowness, moral murkiness, and aesthetic limpness that come naturally from the pen.” And yet, despite its inauspicious beginning, “The Customer” manages to banish these qualities with Roensch’s own realization that “the specific is magnificent and murderous.”

The magnificent and murderous details of the best of these stories make this a top-notch book, and I’ll eagerly await Roensch’s subsequent work.

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