Reviewed By Corey Campbell
- University of Iowa Press (2016)
- 140 pages
November Storm, the debut story collection by Robert Oldshue, provides readers with nine intimate explorations of often haunted characters—a psychiatrist reliving a conversation that may have triggered a long-ago patient to kill his wife, a girl exploring her great-uncle’s prisoner-of-war history for her bat mitzvah project, a young kid accounting for the disappearance of his neighbor’s cat. Oldshue creates these narratives with emotional complexity, insight, sincere interest in the human condition, and humor. These are honest, multilayered stories. The fundamental voice is wise, and characters’ lives are depicted without weighty judgment but with openness and a willingness to understand.
This gaze has allowed Oldshue to inhabit a wide spectrum of characters, such as the young gay prostitute narrating “The Receiving Line”: “It was 1978, and I was gay, and I was poor, and when necessary, I made a little money from sex. I lived in Boston, not far from the Common, and I’d go there and sit on a bench and watch for men who were watching for me.” Or the grandmother hovering over her daughter’s troubled pregnancy in “Home Depot”: “They go to the paint department and tell the guy they want something between peach and parchment, and the guy pulls out a color and it’s the color of raw hamburger, I’m serious.” Or the haunted psychiatrist Dr. Bill Welker in “Mass Mental”: “It took, he thought, courage to be ordinary, a message he delivered to all his patients.”
Oldshue is both writer and physician. He talked about these dual practices in an interview with the Portland Press Herald: “In a world of increasing specialization, it is just such a gift to be part of people’s lives as a family doctor. And I see the writing as an extension of that. My stories reflect that I take their issues seriously. The writing is an opportunity to sit down and say, ‘Well, who are these families?’”
That curiosity is evident in this collection and has served him well, as November Storm won the 2016 Iowa Short Fiction Award. One of the hallmarks of this collection is the precision of details, especially in characterization. The title story, which first appeared in New England Review, excels in depicting elderly Doris’s awareness of time passing. Doris and her husband, Ed, are among the last remaining “first families” still living in their Eastern subdivision. The Spectors, the Bromleys, and many others who peopled the neighborhood in the ’50s have since moved on to other lives. Doris and Ed remain. Doris’s perceptions on this snowy Thanksgiving are colored by her knowledge of what came before. Even considering her husband, Doris thinks: “Now he was somebody’s eighty-year-old grandpa stooped and swaying in her kitchen, his once handsome face puffy, his hair white and wild, his hands dusky and sometimes shaking, the backs covered with ragged, red spots.” Oldshue does a skillful job navigating time in this story, containing the movements largely in Doris’s memories, while the story’s forward momentum comes from the plot mechanics of a trip to the grocery and a car accident. He blends these layers of time well and occasionally punches readers with a heartbreaking, understated line: “Doris wondered if she and Ed had made a mistake. At every opportunity, they’d prepared their boys to leave home and they had.”
Throughout, the collection mines the interiority of these perhaps ordinary people who become fascinating through the access Oldshue gives us. I’m reminded of the Virginia Woolf line from To the Lighthouse: “But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike anyone if one looked at them.” It is this sustained attention that gives the stories weight. Oldshue isn’t merely presenting characters in action but leads us into their thoughts, moving us through the sediments of their histories and fears, giving the stories a generous, expansive quality.
For me, the most striking may be “Mass General,” which originally appeared in Gettysburg Review. In this story a psychiatrist relives the deadly consequences of advice he gave a couple early in his practice. Here Oldshue creates the premise that every case referred to the psychiatrist by the wacky yet possibly brilliant therapist Roxanne will be a mirror or antidote of sorts to his own blind spots. When Roxanne sends him the Donaldsons, a rare case of couples therapy, Dr. Welker knows—as we do—that such premise will be borne out. The Donaldsons indeed do trigger the long-ago episode in which Welker gave the wrong counsel, which sent the husband patient at the time into a murderous rage. While I appreciate the neatness of the idea, maybe the symmetry of it, I was most taken with the way Oldshue creates Welker’s interiority, often writing Welker’s thoughts in sentences that tend to snowball, such as this one early on: “She’d presented with insomnia, which they’d decided was depression, which they’d decided was boredom, which they’d decided after a year and a half of once and sometimes twice weekly two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar therapeutic hours was actually a fear of boring other people.” Throughout this story, Oldshue shows us Welker’s thinking, his analysis on the page, which creates an interesting momentum as he comes to terms with the darkest point of his professional, and later personal, life. Structurally, this story also takes interesting risks, leaping through Welker’s romantic history and later leading to his imagined conversations with the couple whom he’d failed.
Overall, November Storm is a full, insightful exploration of nine different lives and the heartaches shaping them. “Who are these families?” Oldshue asked. His collection gets at exactly that.
Corey Campbell’s fiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, the Rattling Wall, and Jabberwock Review, among other publications. A PhD student at the University of Houston and graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has received support from Inprint, Sewanee, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.