By Paula Bomer

Word Riot Press
December 2010
176 pages


Reviewed by David Cotrone


Through the crackle and thrum of the baby monitor, my father heard the noise of swarming; a throng of bees had funneled through the ceiling. They stung my brother and me in our cribs, the ceiling itself untarnished and unblemished. My mother says she cannot describe how sick she was with terror.

Paula Bomer's Baby—a collection of ten haunting stories, all of them as devastating as they are human—reminds me of this moment. Why are these two tufts of existence—my memory and Bomer's collection—connected? Perhaps Baby's first story, "The Mother of His Children," holds a clue.

While watching his wife give birth to his son, Ted "wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear." In Bomer's world, a scene that is idealistically beautiful—the birth of a son—is horrific. The scene continues:

Everybody was screaming. [His wife] Laura was no longer Laura. Her voice came from a place he'd never known was in her. He couldn't stand it. He couldn't stand looking at anyone anymore, and be began backing out of the room…

Later, in "The Second Son," a story that also considers expectant parents in a delivery room, a woman tells her husband to leave, implying that he is of no use, a weight, "no help." Is this not the deterioration of hope? Best intentions gone wrong? "A contraction drove her to her knees."

The simple honesty of Bomer's prose lends a brutal effect, truth that is recognizable yet hard to swallow. In "The Shitty Handshake," Karen Valence wanders through the day knowing she married a man who doesn't love her back. Karen is chastened further, though, by her husband's "shitty handshake." Karen takes herself as a victim, as she looks herself in the mirror and thinks, "I look old. I look fucking old." Bomer is at her best in moments of clarity such as these—instants filled with disappointing revelation, anxiety, and loss. After gazing into the mirror, Karen turns even further inward, taking us with her:

Then she closed her eyes, and she comforted herself with an image of her body, clean and smooth on the outside, a hush, with her poisonous insides scraped, gone. With just a pure emptiness inside the shell of her skin. As she stood up…she imagined her empty body filled with the light of the day.

Bomer reaches through the page and holds up a mirror of her own, not only to herself, but also to her readers. In "She Was Everything to Him," Jon's "body had been so untouched and unloved for so long, that his essence, his inner life, the thing that made him feel like a person, just died." In "A Galloping Infection," a father of two children, when grappling with his wife's death, realizes that "They were not brave people, not in the face of life, and now, clearly, not in the face of death."

In "A Walk to the Cemetery," the two worlds of nature and humanity come together—existence as worldview, as panorama. Sitting in a cemetery with her son, Greta shares a piece of beguiling trivia, "Elephants take their sick and dying to the same spot… They have graveyards, just like humans. Scientists have found great piles of elephant bones."

Greta's son asks, "Do they carry them? Do they carry them with their trunks?"

"I don't know," Greta answers.

A flash of searing honesty.

"But I think they love each other. I think how we treat our dead is an act of love…"

A revelation that is both haunting and real.

In Bomer's Baby, each story's finish leaves one with a feeling of being rapped on the knuckles, of stumbling across a fresh perspective or situation that is at once uncomfortable and true, of finding some sort of solace. Yet each story, too, seems unfinished. I do not mean to say that there is a sense of something lacking; rather, Bomer chooses to imitate the narrative of life, blank spaces of the future waiting to be filled, a future that can only be defined by speculation. 

The day after the bees, my parents called a fumigator to the house. He came by himself, in shorts and a shirt. All he had with him was a can of spray, not even a protective mask.

That man was a killer," my mother said.

"Yes," said my father. "He was."