Publisher: Rose Metal Press
Released: August 2016
Reviewed by Melanie Page
Superman on the Roof begins with an introduction by the 10th Rose Metal Press chapbook contest judge, Ira Sukrungruang. He contemplates and defines what a short story collection is: “The short story collection is a gathering of suffering. But the good short story collection expounds and often enlightens the reader to the very nature of suffering, and in that moment is a shared intimacy between writer and reader.” Unlike most introductions, Sukrungruang wisely avoids summarizing Williford’s chapbook and instead puts the reader in the right frame of mind.
Narrated by Travis, oldest sibling of four, Superman on the Roof is about the repetition of grief. Perhaps considered a long short story told in a collection of short short stories, most of the pieces begin with where the characters are in relation to the death of three-year-old Jesse. At first, he’s alive; it’s “the summer before he got sick...” and then the next piece starts “The morning after our kid brother Jesse died...” Travis tells the stories of his family months after Jesse died, the summer after Jesse died, the Christmas Eve after Jesse died. Though the cliché time heals all wounds is commonly expressed to the bereaved, Travis’s entire life circles around the death of his toddler-aged brother, never letting the reader out of his grip of grief.
It would be easy to hate nearly everyone in Superman on the Roof if it weren’t for one beautiful story about Jesse at age two before he got sick, and sister Maddie, age five, swimming in a plastic play pool. They take off their bathing suits and run around the yard naked, ending up in the street. While I was gripped with fear for what happens when children are in the street, their father swoops in and picks them up, blowing bubbles with his mouth on their stomachs and making them laugh. Their mother admonishes the father for essentially rewarding the small children for playing in the street, but it doesn’t matter: this moment is alive and happy.
Maddie attempts to recreate the scene after Jesse dies, but it’s not possible; instead, her father spanks her and yells at her. This was where the real grief started to crawl on me and not let go as the pieces explored the remaining children in a strict Catholic school, the downsize to a cheaper house, the consequential lack of money from so much time in the hospital, a future in therapy, a discovery years later of home videos of Jesse that no one remembers.
Though a mere 44 pages, Lex Williford establishes how grief both consumes and numbs us, how people refused to acknowledge pain both emotional and physical, and how we all try to keep our shit under control.
Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at grabthelapels.com.