Everything is falling apart in Portland writer Keith Rosson’s new story collection Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons. Marriages, record deals, motels, and even the four horsemen of the apocalypse are fraying at the edges. Many of the stories in this collection predate last year, but it still feels like a collection written during a time of intense existential dread. While Rosson’s characters may struggle under the weight of the worlds they inhabit, they never buckle. Most of them, anyway.
It’s hard to forget the opener of the collection, The Lesser Horsemen. Pestilence finds himself
sidelined (which is how you know this story was written before 2020) along with War and
Famine. Listless and alienated from his companions, he’s taken to writing sijos, a style of Korean
poetry from the 10th century. God sends the three bickering horsemen on a team-building
cruise to Alaska, where they do trust falls with a therapist named Linda.
In review: Keith Rosson, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, Meerkat Press, 2021
The fantastic nature of The Lesser Horsemen highlights Rosson’s descriptive abilities.
Pestilence’s body is “crafted from red and green mountain ranges of ruined skin, a body
volcanic with expectorate.” Disgusting for sure, but done in broad strokes, letting (or forcing)
the reader to make sense of what that might look like. The physical form of God is off-putting
in a more mundane way, a pot-bellied man with “shiny doll eyes” who gives off the impression
of someone “who when in restaurants left very small tips, in coins, as some kind of statement.”
Not the kind of person anyone should trust. Even a horseman of the apocalypse.
Rosson crafts details of the world that get across strong visuals but also atmosphere. The
opening paragraph of This World or the Next:
Sissy limps before the stragglers, the last few locals who shyly drop in her basket their
sweat-dampened dollars, their fistfuls of change. It gives Sissy a seaward lean, her limp;
she can’t use her walker and hold the collection basket both, so her steps are careful,
halting, intentional things. They stand in a rented room in a community center in Macon,
Georgia, and most of the remaining audience—women in Walmart blouses and men
who favor trucker caps, the frayed bills bent in a half-moon—pull back from her even as
they drop money in her basket. There is still foam at the corners of Sissy’s lips. Blood dots
the blue tarp spread out beside the lectern. The room is still electric with unease.
The narrator, Emma, a woman who walked away from her old life to follow an unusual group
of holy rollers, hints at unsettling events. The audience is disturbed by what they’ve seen, and
by the woman with the limp, but also excited. It sets up a mystery for the reader to unfold. As the
story continues, cracks appear in the insular life of the narrator as she discovers that there are
secrets to the charismatic preacher she’s been traveling across country with.
Oregon makes quite a few appearances in the book, and local readers will no doubt pick up some references out-of-state readers won’t, but it’s always background. Rossen is more driven by character and plot than environment.
Mystery is the engine that drives these stories. An absence of information available to the reader and the characters. In the darkly comedic Yes, We Are Duly Concerned with Calamito Events, a group of coworkers find themselves trapped inside their office by an invisible force. Days turn to weeks and the only person who seems to know they exist is a creepy young boy who calls them on the phone every day. In Winter, Spring, Whatever Happens After That, a mother’s unexplained departure from her family sets a series of events into motion that no one could have expected.
Rosson doesn’t tie up his stories with a neat bow. He ends them in the moment before we’ve
been trained to expect them to resolve, in a space where any number of possible outcomes
might occur even if we know what happens next. Where there’s not a moment of revelation
but the hints of one to come. It keeps the collection from feeling weighed down with the way
he grinds down his characters.
It also helps that he doesn’t revel in his characters’ suffering. For the most part, violence looms
off the page.
Only a few of the stories don’t quite land. Homecoming leans too heavily into the liminal
space of Rosson endings. It’s a purgatory tale that can’t shake the shackles of a world without
stakes. While At This Table sticks the landing, the second-person narration is too distant,
especially considering the narrator is a woman at the crossroads of her first relationship with
another woman. Rosson makes good use of second-person in Forgive Me This, following a
down-on-his-luck man making a trip across country to see his dying father. The narrator
addressing the reader has a voice. It reveals vulnerabilities. In At This Table, the narrator
constantly intellectualizes, digresses (and further digresses with footnotes), and obsesses over
scenic observations. It comes off as a story that’s about a queer character that doesn’t engage
with their queerness.
Rosson ends Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons with Brad Benske and the Hand of Light, which
calls back to This World or the Next – the only story in the collection to do so. The titular Brad
is the husband Emma left behind. Devastated by her abandonment, the only time he leaves his
house is to pay a psychic to make up stories about where his wife has gone and to leave
threatening notes to Emma’s brother.
Like the rest of the characters in this collection he’s facing a breaking point, waiting for the next
thing to happen, whatever that is. Rosson dives into that space between moving on and giving
up; a space many of us have been living in for the last year. That’s what pulls the reader into the
collection. We want his characters’ resilience to come through, for someone to throw them a lifeline, or disaster to be averted through random chance. Because we want that for ourselves. In a world where things feel out of control, these stories ask us to hold on to hope.