In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” the final story in my collection Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, the titular character goes out to a bar. Brad Benske has been brooding and isolating for months after his wife has left him to join a doomsday cult. He has a goiter – possibly stress-related – growing on his face, and he can’t stop obsessing over it. A lawyer on embarrassed sabbatical from a respected corporate firm, Benske’s gone to a bar on a whim with a man who has come to his door claiming to be with the Water Bureau. The two men strike up an odd friendship after the latter comes to collect on a bill from the former. Consider it a testament to Benske’s grand loneliness that when the Water Bureau guy – Cameron – invites him out to see a Swedish black metal band, Benske says yes.
The show is at a bar across town. Cameron pays. I feel underdressed and old: Denim and leather abound, and nearly everyone is wearing a black shirt with a band logo that is pointy and indecipherable, barbed wire brought to heaving life. I buy drinks from a solemn bartender with Cut Here written on his throat and by the time the band starts, I’m intoxicated and the music is so loud I can feel my ribs vibrate. I haven’t drunk in a long time. Cameron is headbanging beside me, and someone is pushing against me, and my cocktail, somewhat expensive, is sloshing down my shirt. The music is a sea to get lost in. It’s like a world being born. The singer’s face is painted in white greasepaint and he points at us and yowls and we scream back in response. I yell until something in my throat threatens to crack and still I can’t hear myself. It’s lovely, really. It’s a lovely way to get lost.
After the band stops, Cameron and I drink some more, and he buys a shirt with the band’s barbed indecipherable logo on it. There’s a picture of a wolf’s severed head beneath the logo, and he makes a grand gesture of gifting it to me. I put it on right there over my other shirt.
By now the crowd has thinned, everyone pressing themselves into booths or going out onto the patio to smoke cigarettes and yell at each other. I lift my cocktail – something called a “Norwegian Fuck Cloud” that annoyed the already annoyed bartender when I asked for it - and take a sip and bellow over the jukebox, “My wife left me! For a cult! Nine months ago!”
Cameron frowns and nods. He’s put his baseball hat on backwards at some point. “That’s intense!” he yells.
What could possibly be in a Norwegian Fuck Cloud? Who knows. I certainly don’t, though I imagine it’s served in a tall glass. It is blue, choked with ice, semi-opaque. Has a straw and a turquoise umbrella moored to the rim. A few NFCs in a row will lead you to become that person in the bar, the one trying to climb on someone else’s table and take your shirt off, demanding chicken strips or world peace at the top of your lungs. And it’s these dichotomies – Benske as a powerful man ordering a frivolous, colorful thing; Benske as a once-virile man now feeling emasculated; Benske as a once-successful man with a thing growing on his face, painful and poisonous and the size of a walnut and still growing – that is the basis of Folk Songs. Two things in collision. Two things that stand out in stark relief when placed beside each other. A folk song; a trauma surgeon. An exhausted middle-aged lawyer; a greasepainted black metal vocalist; both yowling at the top of their lungs and both finding freedom in it.
Folk Songs is also replete with addicts and alcoholics. Many scenes take place in bars. People in various states of sobriety and non-sobriety populate many of the tales. It is, surprisingly to me, a book that many consider to be about the painful scar-worn valleys of addiction, at least in part. I didn’t plan this when writing the collection, but I’ll admit I find myself drawn to characters that struggle with chemical dependency. I appreciate the struggle inherent in moving past such things. Writing about addiction seems to encapsulate so much of what we’re all going through. Not that every reader is an addict of something, but it’s a microcosmic way of writing about struggle; the isolation, the backsteps, the regrets. And also, yes, as someone who grew up amid addiction and violence, I have a tremendous amount of empathy towards people struggling to kick or those neck-deep in the wreckage of their lives. I like writing about criminals and people struggling to move from point a to point b with very limited options. When I write them, some readers call these “crime” stories, other people call them “literary fiction.” I’m fine with either. In “Baby Jill,” when the Tooth Fairy struggles with the mortality and frailty of the children she helps, that is a dichotomy too, and she has become addicted to her own mortality and the trappings inherent in it: She smokes, obsesses over the internet, etc. Or “The Lesser Horsemen,” when three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are sent on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. Again, these can be considered “fabulist” stories or pieces of literary fiction.
It’s all about that dichotomy. The Tooth Fairy checking her email. Pestilence playing foosball and doing trust falls. Or the lawyer, once tight-buttoned and proud and closed off, drinking the toxic blue drink and spilling his guts at a bar.
Collection | Speculative Fiction | Magical Realism | Literary
With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson delves into notions of family, grief, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he’s explored in previous novels. In “Dunsmuir,” a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister’s ashes, while “The Lesser Horsemen” illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” an estranged husband seeks his wife’s whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and in “High Tide,” a grieving man ruminates on his brother’s life as a monster terrorizes their coastal town. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes a number of Rosson’s unpublished stories, as well as award-winning favorites.