Reviewed: “Baby & other stories”

Reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Paula Bomer
Baby & other stories

Word Riot Press; 176 p.
review by Tobias Carroll

Baby isn’t an easy book to read. That isn’t for any stylistic reasons: Paula Bomer’s prose is clear, and her narration is precise. The reader is never at a loss for the nature of the relationships in these ten stories; Bomer’s characters are clearly defined, their connections established cleanly from the outset. The neighborhoods where they live are familiar: comfortable neighborhoods in popular cities; well-drawn homes and sidewalks on cities’ outskirts. What instead makes Baby a difficult read — intentionally so — are its characters. They’re a long way from sympathetic: activities included here include cheating on spouses; drinking to excess; quitting quitting drinking; and barely subdued loathing of one’s children.

Oftentimes, stories focusing on unsympathetic characters balance out those qualities with a sense of empathy. (Marcy Dermansky’s recent novel Bad Marie comes to mind — despite the egregious behavior of its protagonist, her actions feel understandable; there’s a context for them.) What Bomer is after here is thornier: putting the reader inside the heads of characters who have divorced themselves from almost all  types of empathy. The accumulated effect, over these ten stories, is to prompt empathy for characters who possess none of their own. Or, as one character observes at the end of one of these stories: “How strange, that a lack of love could be more binding than love itself.” The contradictions in that sentence are what Bomer’s out to explore here.

“The Shitty Handshake” arranges itself with elements familiar for many a short-story reader: a Brooklyn setting, a writer as protagonist. That writer, Karen Valence, is in a loveless marriage, her husband’s flaws summed up by the characteristic that gives the story its title. It’s a bleak piece, taking Karen through a series of flawed escapes: through pool, through recovery, through an affair, and, catastrophically, through an AA meeting that topples into chaos.

Familial dynamics fare no better in “If There Were Two Boats. Its opening lines set the stage neatly: “He was not Edie’s favorite son. Regardless, it pained her that he married such a woman and lived such a life.” Its examination of a particularly stifling mother-son relationship ebbs into bleak satire, a mirror-universe comedy of manners in which the stakes are both impossibly high and, ultimately, meaningless.

“A Galloping Infection” finds much of the tension that has accumulated over the course of the novel exploding. The story opens with the removal of a corpse, and quickly segues to a brutal series of musings from the story’s protagonist: “He no longer had to worry about how her bitter, tired, and nasty behavior would affect their two sons. He no longer had to listen to her speak insecurely and incorrectly and childishly in front of people who made her nervous, in other words, just everyone she didn’t know very well (her trailer park childhood in Illinois had never fully left her.)” From there, a marriage is condensed, is summarized, is viewed from the lens of its collapse. The image on which it ends could be described lovingly; here, it’s a view of reconciliation rendered in horrific terms. And that, besides Bomer’s skill with character and setting, may be the achievement of this collection. Here, daily routines are made treacherous; familiar reunions become pugilistic. Expectations are subverted at each turn, and that subversion makes for an unsettling, sometimes transgressive experience.