Imagine a bridge that’s rumored to have only an entrance. You don’t believe it, so you move under the arch, through the amber-lit tunnels. And as the next opening appears you laugh at those silly rumors, only to find you’re back where you started: late, annoyed, and in disbelief.
And so it is with the characters of English professor Nathan Oates’ Spokane Prize-winning debut collection of short stories, “The Empty House,” published by Lost Horse Press. The characters’ expectations shape the beginnings of these stories, but by the conclusion they’ve somehow slapped them in the face.
All the warning signs are there, all the blueprints for something soon to be broken, all the instances that can’t be undone: An intelligent mixture of Flannary O’ Connor and Bernard Malamud, plus something different.
From the experimental structure of “A Woman Without a Country” to the meta-fictional elements of “The Empty House,” these stories prove that Oates can do a little bit of everything. He pays homage to the traditional A-to-B story while not being afraid to create new and exciting ways to address prose writing.
If the stories operate in and around the characters’ expectations, so, too, do they operate by manipulating the reader’s expectations? In “Nearby, the Edge of Europe,” the protagonist, Martin, attempts to breathe some culture into his children’s minds and fix a sinking marriage all in one swoop by traveling to Ireland.
In “A Woman without a Country,” Colleen tries desperately to break the mold of an American stereotype while somehow feeding the very image she tries to destroy.
And the financial and cultural dichotomies of the rich and the forgotten are exploited (for our benefit) in “Looking for Service.”
Unfortunately, the real treasure of these stories is found near the conclusions, so there’s only so much this review can say about them. With that being said, this collection marks the beginning of an exciting new career from a writer we should all know by name.
Benjamin Rader can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.