San Francisco author Ethel Rohan must relish the challenge of writing short fiction; in “Cut Through the Bone,” she’s done it 30 times in just 112 pages.
Rohan writes about loneliness, abandonment, grief, alcoholism and death. Her characters are variously insane, childless, murderous and suicidal, and so human they evoke compassion rather than judgment.
One of Rohan’s strongest offerings, “The Bridge They Said Couldn’t Be Built,” hints that we are all potential suicides. In it, Ben, a man with a “helpless boy face,” is talked down off the Golden Gate Bridge by a narrator who offers him first a beer (he refuses) and then doughnuts.
After the narrator gets Ben to walk off the bridge, she sits with him in her car and the two of them devour the sugary treats. Ben has her phone his angry ex-wife, but when the ex refuses the call, Ben runs back onto the bridge.
As the narrator is swept by her own life’s sadness, we recognize the grief living within us all. We feel the wind howling, whipping through the Golden Gate from the Farallons as the foghorns moan. The narrator, becoming angry, climbs the bridge railing and declares they should jump together. When Ben tells her that’s stupid, she replies: “I’m stupid? You’re stupid. You really think your life’s so worthless? You think you can just check-out? What about the rest of us?”
The two shout at each other, but finally go back to the car, and eventually back to the narrator’s apartment. Ben falls into a dreamless sleep, and the story ends.
In “How to Kill,” a woman’s husband has forced her to abort their child. In one sentence, Rohan captures a world of pain: “When [the Tarot reader] claimed she could see a baby where there was no longer a baby, Ann felt snakes wrap around her body and cinch her chest.”
Not every story works. Toward the end of “Make Over,” an unnamed wife in a stultifying marriage feels a woman “inside her chest” who “kicked and swung her arms, huffed like their faulty ceiling fan.” Nothing we learn about this character saves the description from feeling gimmicky.
“Vitals” is more successful. A few deft details capture a famous (and demanding) doctor’s marriage. We can fill in the blanks after “Doctor Duke” requires his wife always to have “supper at six sharp” and makes her wear make-up at the dinner table. She whispers to her son, “Tell me I’m here”; it is an unheard and heartbreaking plea.
“The Long Way” and “At the Peephole” are tantalizingly atmospheric but suffer from a lack of information. “Fish,” “Cracking Open” and “Crazy” rely on over-the-top drama.
But in the end, fans of short fiction will weather these few near misses. Rohan’s writing is always skillful; it is never boring and is frequently even brilliant, making the reader wish it went on for more than just 112 pages.
By Ethel Rohan
Published by Dark Sky Books