by Steve Cushman
Main Street Rag, 300 pp., $14.95
If Steve Cushman’s new book of short stories, Fracture City, were an actual city, it would be one in which the phone lines are down. The residents of this city would be without internet, without a postal service, and would roam from room to room, tapping Morse code on walls in the hope that someone might hear, might understand, and might respond. There is a palpable sense of disconnection and solitude in the twenty-five stories that comprise Fracture City; Cushman’s characters all harbor the hope that there is more to life than what they’re living, but none are sure how to make the connections that matter.
Take the unnamed protagonist of the book’s title story, an x-ray tech who encounters his first dead body, a twelve-year-old boy with brain injuries. He begins to regret neglecting the mother whose home he’s just moved out of, and suddenly longs to hear her voice, to know “she was alive, and when I drove over to her house in the morning with donuts and coffee she would be there to receive me.” He picks up the phone and calls his mother in the dead of night:
There was a soft click on the phone, the sound of pillows shuffling, followed by a voice, my
mother’s, faint and tired. “Hello, yes.”
I hung up without a word, let out a big breath, felt the warm tears on my cheek and lowered my
head into my hands.
You get the sense, reading Cushman’s stories, that there are moments like this we must seize, though the characters fail to carry them through. This sense of disconnection is reinforced by the first-person narration Cushman often adopts, isolating a story’s perspective to the interior life of the main character and preventing the reader—and the narrator—from being able to delve underneath the surface of the other characters. “Tinjon,” perhaps the most lyrically written story in the collection, is a perfect example. The narrator, Barry, lusts after and longs for the woman he’s proposed to, rhapsodizes about her body and her brain, about how loving her makes even gas station coffee taste like Columbia’s finest. Drunkenly, he proclaims to a friend, “‘[…] do you know how it feels when you jump into a pool of cool water or when your favorite song comes on the radio, and it feels so good that it’s hard to catch your breath? Well, that’s how it feels all the time being around Sueann.’” He can’t bring himself to say these words to the woman he wants to marry, though, and can only wonder what’s going on inside of her head as she delays her acceptance or refusal to his proposal. In the end, it is Sueann the reader is most intrigued by; like Barry, we long for an answer, for understanding.
When he’s not writing, Steve Cushman works as an x-ray technologist at Moses Cone hospital in Greensboro, NC—appropriately, since he is adept at exposing the hidden, inner lives of his protagonists. This daily work of looking at bare bones—the stark innerworkings of the human body, unencumbered by all that messy tissue and flesh—makes sense, given Cushman’s austere prose. The language he employs is the plainspeak of his middle class characters, which works in first-person narratives like “Tinjon” or “Me and Dr. Bob,” though in stories like “My Wife, the Porn Star” and “To Love Again,” the clarity of the prose is almost a detriment; characters interpret the goings on around them immediately and completely, without uncertainty or self-doubt. Nothing is left for the reader to mull over after the final sentence, as if behind each story lies the fear that any ambiguity might prevent the audience from “getting” it.
Many of the stories are set in Florida, though without being told this the reader might imagine “Grass Hearts” or “So Far Away” set nearly anywhere, as there is little in the language or sensory detail to suggest a sense of place—with the noted exception being “Tinjon.” Here’s the narrator of that story describing the rural Florida sunset, which he’s paused in the middle of a road trip to admire:
The blues were so white and the whites so blue that they mixed into one color. I pulled my truck
over to the side of the road, lay down in the back and gazed up into the sky[…] The clouds were
white and fluffy like sand dunes and as the sun fell behind them, colors—oranges, yellows, and
purples—were cast out in soft billowy ribbons.
It’s enough to make him turn his road trip into a permanent move—and enough to make this reader crave more of this kind of precise, evocative language.
Cushman is at his best when indoors, especially in the hospital setting. In “Massaging the Heart,” a story which effectively employs the second-person perspective, “you” are surrounded by the machinery of medicine, the constant hustle and din of an emergency room, thrown into the thick of sickness and death, and forced to question the tenuous construction of a life. When the prose in Fracture City works, it functions this way, like an x-ray, penetrating through all the layers of a character’s history and baggage to expose the most basic components of a person’s makeup, the fragile bones holding us all together.