Cardinal Numbers

Theirs is a scaled-down world (the main character in the aptly titled “Highspeed Linear Main Street” keeps his eye on his car’s odometer, “reassured by any movement of numbers”). Such a world requires the kind of scaled-down fiction that Broun writes: nineteen stories in only 148 pages, the longest ten pages, the shortest four. Broun’s style is similarly attenuated, close in its elliptical and severely understated manner to contemporary American minimalist writing. Yet at the same time, Broun’s prose is self-consciously excessive, even flamboyant. It reads as though it were the weird but wonderful point at which Raymond Carver meets Stanley Elkin and Barry Hannah.

It is an art of strange and startling combinations, of “montage, collage, and bricolage,” an art of very nearly pure language in which lists, sudden shifts, odd juxtapositions, and a profusion of “conflicting data” are the norm. The search for simple connections both attracts and repels Broun’s characters, for the lines which order the world also obscure its essential oddity, those “caroms of association” that give his fiction its own distinctive identity. “Am I talking too much?” goes one story’s refrain.

Broun, unfortunately, talked too little; he died at age thirty-seven, four years after the freak surgical accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. Read in small doses, one or two at a time, the stories collected in CARDINAL NUMBERS are disturbing in their implications yet brilliantly imaginative in their celebration of their own verbal being. Against the inevitability of his characters’ defeats stands the aliveness of Broun’s language, the contemporary equivalent of Robert Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.”