Thursday, December 15, 2016

On “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates ****

The world is not a safe place. Oates's stories are often set overseas and in unfamiliar settings. The strongest ones involve people in over their heads, reminiscent of Paul Bowles's work. While some of the stories are real shockers, the collection unfortunately isn't wholly consistent in quality.

"Nearby, the Edge of Europe" focuses on a man whose wife has become an alcoholic no longer interested in her career or in putting in much work on the marriage, all this on a trip to Europe to see the husband's sister's family. A kind of sadness pervades the story as the narrator comes to grips with his dissolving marriage. The story can be read here at Jstor, with a free membership.

I'm not sure how to take "Looking for Service." Written from the point of view of a conservative businessman who doesn't much care for the liberal persuasion of his children and the like, the story recounts his trip to a third-world nation to resolve yet another issue for the mining company he works for. A subplot involving his need to care for his ailing wife provides a sympathetic side to him. And one can see that it is compassion that causes him to tour parts of the country with a youngish hippie couple. But what we don't see is much of a transformation in the man--he has preconceived notions of the country, of youth, of these two people in particular, and they're all confirmed for him, whether what he believes is true or not. I suppose the one thing we do come to see is that the man is full of fear.

In "A Woman without a Country" Oates hits his stride. The story involves a woman whose sexual escapade becomes part of a hit reality television show so that she is forever trying to escape from a past that it seems everyone knows about. I've often wondered how people who catch a bit of unwanted fame deal with it, and Oates does a good job here of channeling one possible reaction.

"Running Rapids" is a cold-hearted story that deserves its coldness. It's about a couple who go camping in Alaska and who run in with a group of Danish campers. What happens next is chilling in more ways than one. The matter-of-fact tone of the story adds to its macabre, and was the first to remind of some of Paul Bowles's work.

"The Yellow House" is the story that first brought Oates to my attention many years ago. My review of it can be read here, where a link to the story is also available.

"In the World Below" returns to some of the themes in "Looking for Service." In this case, an American with a diplomatic or multinational job of some sort has brought his son to Haiti, and together they sit out an ongoing revolution and all its apparent dangers rather than fleeing to safe American quarters. The story is told from three points of view--the father's, the son's, and their Haitian guide. Such multiple viewpoints are hard to pull off.

"Developing" is one of my favorites insofar as it uses a technique and tells a story I had never quite read before. It's a letter about a man who goes to pick up a set of photos he was not aware he had asked to be developed. The photos include pictures of a woman he does not know--or perhaps does. One is left wondering how to interpret the letter writer's actions to follow. Has he gone to live in his head? Or has his imagination actually come to life? Or is this simply a metaphor for another life he wishes he had? I was reminded of the fantastic realists of Latin America (Cortazar's "Orientation of Cats," in which a man's family is transported into a painting he goes to stare at each day in a museum).

"Hidden in the Trees" is another overseas story, this one about a American couple who tour nontourist areas of foreign lands. The woman is a former drug addict who draws her strength from her husband and who struggles with the lack of strength within herself. "In the Ravine" is about a slacker who realizes that his parents actually know that he is one, as his father takes him on a trip to find and dig up illegal marijuana plants.

The last two stories return to the dark and shocking material recounted in "Running Rapids." "Famous for Crabs," despite its seemingly trifling title is one of the darkest stories I've ever read. It's about a man who goes to visit an old college friend he reconnects with through Facebook. It can be read at here at Jstor with a free membership. The title story is about another man visiting an old college friend in Guatemala during the civil war and about the younger brother, twenty years later, who goes to track down the man who disappeared soon after.

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