This year I re-read the short story collection Cardinal Numbers by Hob Broun. Broun died in 1987 at the age of 37. This collection and his novel Inner Tube, edited by Gordon Lish, remain touchstones for me. These stories play with form and genre while also delivering us to deeply felt and often devastating places. Broun wrote with real wit and heart. Favorite pieces (and titles) in Cardinal Numbers include, “Ruby Dawn, Private Duty Nurse,” “Ice Water,” “High Speed Linear Main Street,” and “Fryed Cutlets.” Here’s the opener of “No Smoking”: “Joan was having a birthday the way other people have flu. She’d turned thirty-seven five days ago, but those forlorn and morbid symptoms still hung on. The ferries tripled on Friday and everyone already on the island took deep breaths. She passed the scone shop and the book nook and toggery. She passed Ramona’s sidewalk tables, where trust-fund carpenters sat with their imported ale. They wore jaunty little hats. They discussed timber prices and dilemmas of wiring. The dogs at their feet were stuporously pictorial.”
Then there is Broun’s beautiful story “Rosella, in Stages,” which follows a woman’s life from her toddler days at the turn of the last century to her senility and death eight decades later, all in six brief sections over six pages. Broun had some noteworthy difficulty writing this book and much of Inner Tube: he was paralyzed from the neck down after a surgical procedure. He wrote by puffing into a plastic tube attached to a computer. Every word was hard-won.
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