Book Review of “November Storm: A Collection of Short Stories” by Robert Oldshue.
The Iowa University Press describes this Iowa Short Fiction award winner of 2016, as follows:
In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define. In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman on the Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home of the Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have.
This blurb is an excellent overview and assessment of this collection, and I believe that commonality in a book of short fiction helps give an overall cohesiveness to the book, which sometimes allows for a collection to almost feel like a novel (or in this case, due to its length, a novella). However, despite this underlying theme, Oldshue gives us stories that are for the most part, very different one from the other. In this way, Oldshue investigates several different aspects of what wanting to be decent is, for various types of characters. I found that totally commendable, as well as fascinating, and something Oldshue fully succeed in achieving.
Content and theme aside, the question is, was Oldshue successful in mastering the art form of the short story. I have always believed that the shorter (and/or more restrictive, and/or more concise) the form, the harder it is to accomplish. On the surface, Oldshue’s style seems be one where the narrator goes off into tangents and back-stories, which seem unrelated to the story’s main point. Fortunately, Oldshue has perfected the knack of slipping back to the main story at just the right moment before he’s lost the plot. Shortly after that, Oldshue gives us a closing line that seems to be slightly on the obscure side, but after you think about it, is actually very pointed. While some may think this a cliché for the short story form, if executed properly, this can really work magically well, and I think Oldshue has this down pat.
Another thing that impressed me was the everyday language and seemingly casual voice, that Oldshue employs here. Using this, Oldshue speaks to the hearts of his readers, giving us a witty anthology, which at turns is both poignant and insightful. Finally, Oldshue also succeed in rendering both male and female voices for his protagonists, with natural realism. More importantly, Oldshue even portrays young people without making them sound either too childish or excessively precocious. This is one of my pet peeves, and I’m always pleased to read fiction that doesn’t fall into either of those traps.
The only problem I had with this collection was that while most of the stories were very compelling, others didn’t quite match that quality, and rambled on for a little too long. In particular, I wasn’t sure I understood why Oldshue included some of the action in the story “Fergus B. Fergus,” which slowed the pace too much for my taste, and some of it didn’t seem to connect with the story’s point. In addition, in “Summer Friend,” we get two main protagonists plus another important minor one. This larger cast of characters proved problematic and I think he should have given us just a little less of their back-stories, which would have made this story more effective. However, these are my only niggles, so I can assure you that I still recommend this collection and believe it deserves four and a half stars out of five.
“November Storm” by Robert Oldshue published by Iowa University Press, released October 1, 2016 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), from the website eBooks.com, iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, and Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.