March 28, 2011
Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life, Rob Roberge’s first story collection (he’s authored two novels) explores variations on the idea of families crumbling around the fractured life of one member. Roberge’s stories are very conscious of the defeated souls they highlight, and excavate these weak links to reveal the context that created them.
Not since “Strays” from Mark Richard’s 1991 collection The Ice at the Bottom of the World has an opening story stood so strong on its own while simultaneously mapping the entire collection. Here, the father of a mentally handicapped son, made so by a failed suicide attempt, recruits a young family friend to finish the suicide. The father, very much the domineering male figure in both boy’s lives, not-so-eloquently accepts all guilt for his son’s condition and then immediately dilutes that guilt by involving the family friend, essentially transferring the burden of choice-to kill and set the son free or to not kill and keep the son trapped-from the true culprit (father) to the newly created culprit (the friend). The story culminates to a compromise, wherein the father and family friend pelt the retarded son with eggs.
In the remainder of the stories comprising the first half of the collection, we’re similarly introduced to other fractured lives. “Working Backwards” examines a disappointed father, and in “Swiss Engineering”, where we’re introduced to a tumored-turned-dead brother. In “Burn Ward”, a broken finally get a place of their own, and in “Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams”, a paralyzed young man is forced into a life of sedation and apathy. Perhaps no story encompasses the idea of the ‘family disease’ better than “Border Radio” in which a grandfather establishes residence in Mexico in order to continue his sexual vitality business: filling human scrotums with pureed goat testicles. This medical-fraud outlier births the paranoia of future generations, changing the family even if only as a ruse:
“I’ve descended from at least two generations of savage men and have lived my life clouded by a fear that what made them what they were flows through my veins and fires sick neurons in my head” (pg 53).
While Roberge could have satisfied most readers by sticking to the overtly damaged individuals that dominate the first half of this collection, he does something very interesting with story number seven (of eleven), called “Beano’s Deal.” Beano, a retired sideshow chimp made famous by his lifetime 155-0 boxing record (yes, you read that correctly), gambles his freedom on a match with a newspaper reporter originally intended to meet Beano as part of a human interest story. Where we have until this story seen the weak link isolated as a pivot point around which each story revolved, we now see our weak link literally fighting for the reputation of his species. “Beano’s Deal” is the fulcrum, balancing the established human weakness with the potential for redemption. I won’t spoil the ending of this one, but I will say that it seems humans and apes are not only genetically similar, but emotionally similar as well.
The penultimate story, “A Headache from Barstow to Salt Lake,” follows the trajectory that reached its apex in “Beano’s Deal,” both in terms of content and theme; the protagonist is a retired (human) boxer, now running a dive bar that caters to neighborhood vagabonds. In this story, the aged boxer struggles to maintain any remaining respect as he punishes a man for disrupting his now-failed marriage. The role swapping here is impressive, placing the once top boxer in the role of the struggling weak link, just as Beano the boxing chimp had struggled with his foreign role as human, the comparatively stronger link.
The tragedy within Roberge’s stories is that the characters know exactly how they should feel-they have an appropriate level of self-sympathy-but are simultaneously emotionally unable to attain the logical progression from sympathy to empathy. They suffer the misfortune of not caring to be better people.
“I’ve always complained I didn’t have time to do things. Now I’ve got nothing but time. I sit on my porch and take phone calls” (pg 20).
There is something wrong with the literary community when a name like Rob Roberge goes unacknowledged as a superior voice in contemporary fiction. I am not asking that Roberge become a household name-as I fear the implications of a society in which every family knows and worships “Border Radio” and “Working Backwards”-but perhaps a broken-household name, a name reserved for those estranged members of broken homes, those that can relate to the maligned tropes peppered throughout this amazing collection.