Goodnight Nobody

By Ethel Rohan


Queen's Ferry Press
September 2013

Reviewed by Christi Clancy


The characters in Goodnight Nobody, Ethel Rohan's latest collection of thirty short vignettes, are suffering, modern-day Hamlets who can't act—or when they do, they lash out in the wrong direction, accomplishing nothing. Isolated by loneliness and unable to change their circumstances, they simmer, imagine transgressions, or limp between panic attacks.

In the story "Flash," a woman in Ireland is going broke in excruciating slow motion. She's worn down by the slow tumble into financial ruin and the attendant legal troubles, and she suffers under the heavy burdens of parenting, friendship, and her obligation to take care of her disabled brother. When she finds out she's about to lose her house, she seeks escape in her stained glass hobby, a not-so-oblique metaphor for her emotional fragility. "She imagines smashing her work and seeing the colorful shards fly. Of course she doesn't commit the violence. She's always been a good girl."

The tragedy in this story, and in all the stories in the book, lies in a sense of disempowerment so complete that it's claustrophobic. "Feelings of anger and helplessness press on her from both sides, like being sandwiched between two walls moving closer together." She does ultimately commit an act of violence, albeit one that doesn't help her to advance her troubles: she fights with her developmentally stunted brother, slapping him and sinking her fingers into his arm. "Feel that!" she thinks.

That's the impulse at the heart of each of Rohan's stories, to get her reader into the heads of her seething, mostly nameless characters and to Feel that! In "Imagine," a man is forced to endure an excruciating dinner out with his ex-wife, who hates him so fully that he feels "molten hostility rise off her and fan out at him." He's equally hostile, acknowledging that "she's the only woman he thinks he could hit." Even their son views his parents' marriage as so volatile it's as though they are "playing tennis with a grenade." Unable to endure the rest of their meal, the man wanders off and returns to a house he'd seen on his way to the restaurant, where Christmas is celebrated year-round. It's August, but the tree is in the bay window, and a Santa is on display. "He gathers himself, determined to march up to the house and demand an explanation. Instead, he sits and watches." Christmas, like the feelings from his former marriage, can't be put away, confined to a season.

In "Fire," Patsy has a long history of skirting danger by starting fires. The story begins with her setting her lighter to the puff of an aerosol can, then to a pile of matchsticks. It's a compulsion that brings her comfort: "Fire brought up tender feelings inside her that not much else could anymore, aside from Anna." Anna is the daughter Patsy is about to lose to her ex-husband and his new yoga-teaching wife, Lily, because of Patsy's destructive behavior. Patsy doesn't understand. "She was so lonely. So she liked fires." Nobody offers sympathy or tries to understand the root of her problems. Her daughter calls her "weird" and Lily disingenuously says, "We know this is hard." Patsy imagines lighting her red hair on fire.

Rohan seems intent on working against the theory of Chekhov's gun. In "Bee Killer," the pistol on the nightstand that the narrator's husband bought to fend off people who steal bee colonies doesn't go off—if anything, it serves to illustrate its own futility. The narrator, frustrated with her husband's fixation on the bees instead of her, thinks, "That shotgun felt good and smooth in my hands, like something I wanted to lie down with. The one time my husband caught me standing at the window in assassin mode, he laughed and said I wouldn't know whether to fire it or play it."

The stories are vivid and affecting—even creepy, like in "Baby," the story of a man who finds a lifelike rubber embryo with human-seeming hair that he suspects his ex-girlfriend left behind after a party.

While the narrators change and their circumstances vary, the emotional and dramatic trajectory of most of the vignettes stays largely the same. While this might be a criticism of the book, it is also perhaps its strength. After reading all these short tales of isolation, loss, regret and frustration, it is virtually impossible not to get a stronger sense of the bleak condition of modern life, told with unflinching honesty and compassion. The short stories needn't be longer, because the characters can't move on, and their outcomes would remain unchanged—each confined to a life of saying goodnight to nobody, their own voices ringing in their ears.