Book Review: We All Sleep in the Same Room
by Paul Rome
Barnacle/Rare Bird, 2013
New Englanders descend into winter with grumbling stoicism. We watch fall’s colorful leaves become brown gutter-wash, while once refreshing air starts delivering baleful frost. Moving through the hectic holidays, we scrabble less and less heroically for the season’s pleasures: ten more minutes cocooned in bed before work, two more hours watching television, with overeating fueling both ventures.
But we also get—finally, truly—to curl up with our books. Snug in mounds of bedding, we tuck into reading with a heightened sense of retreat—even when the story in hand brings along winter’s slithering chill.
Paul Rome’s debut novel, We All Sleep in the Same Room, sees New York labor lawyer Tom Claughlin continue his success standing up for the working class—this time, perhaps, at the expense of his family. He and wife Raina have been enjoying the tumbling novelty that is their three-year-old, Ben, despite a reduced intimacy in their Union Square apartment (a fact coarsened by the presence of Frank, Ben’s youthful sitter). At the Times Square offices of Cunningham, Klein, and Levan, meanwhile, Tom gushes over legal assistant Jessie, who at twenty-four is about half her mentor’s age.
Their latest case involves a receptionist named Doreen, fired from the Coney Island Health Clinic for a seemingly impossible breach of patient/clinic confidentiality. Tom shows Jessie the ropes of both law and the Mad Men-style carousing that spikes their noble trade. Naturally it’s the latter, not Doreen’s case, that allows Rome to micro-arrange a creeping doom for his romantically embattled narrator. His sparse prose burbles with dread, especially in describing things like Frank and Raina’s mutual artistic leanings, and in scenes where Ben prefers his hipper playmate, yelling at his father, “You go away!” Occasionally, Rome revels in some genuinely sinister imagery:
With my face lathered and white, I bring the razor to my cheek. Doreen’s bony, troubled face flickers for a moment in the steamed glass. The razor catches on my skin, just below my jaw. A trickle of red.
We All Sleep in the Same Room has four segments, running from September through December. In September, Tom reveals that he doesn’t actually drink anymore, since he was drunk during an episode of infidelity that nearly destroyed his marriage. He’s also growing nostalgic for the bonded splendor that fall used to signify for him, Raina, and their family. Yet before October blows in, we witness this exquisite, exacting juxtaposition:
The old burn. Vicious, toxic, cleansing. Pure gin—never my drink—striking, as if to pierce through the stomach’s lining, before firing back up through the throat, filling the sinuses with its hard-to-place, bitter vapors, and exiting the body behind reddened, watery eyes, leaving the brain adrift inside a liquid skull.
Nervous moments ensue. I see my son’s small hand wrapped over my finger and the top of his head as he toddles below me, while Raina squats, at the other end of the living room, arms wide. Then Lily, inserting and reinserting her keycard, until a square light above the lock turns green and the door opens in.
Two pivotal moments tallied, before a tragic third (involving Ben’s head and a park bench, late in October) proves to Tom that even if he succeeds in cheating with one aspect of his life, karma’s black bile can spill over elsewhere. Yet Rome isn’t just a misery-monger; November brings a surprising resolution to Doreen’s case, and in December, father and son share a touching day out, at the movies and window-shopping.
Then, reminding everyone that Tom does indeed need to walk the steps and greet the hangman, a sign in a home-furnishings store says, “An interesting plainness is the most difficult and precious thing to achieve.”
Ah, and if you do manage to build such a coveted life? How best to maintain it? Stay in, curl up, and read.