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.
In upstate New York, a November storm is one that comes early in the season. If it catches people off-guard, it can change them in the ways Oldshue’s characters are changed by different but equally surprising storms.
Oldshue's debut collection, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, finds consistent success in its depictions of intimate relationships. In the title story, inclement weather throws an elderly couple's frailty and isolation into sharp relief, rekindling their appreciation for each other. The narrator of the "The Receiving Line" describes the men he sleeps with some of whom pay him for it and concentrates on a client trying to sort out his sexuality. "Mass Mental" explores psychiatrist William Welker's feelings toward his colleagues, his patients, his romantic partners, and, of course, himself. "Summer Friend," a standout, follows the pedigreed Alice Link and the plucky Louise Screery from their girlhood meeting at the fishing spot their families frequent to the brink of old age, revealing their complex, deep affection through their bond with the bright but unfocused Barney McAlister. Alice, Lou, and Barney, like all of Oldshue's characters, immediately engage the reader's empathy as they navigate "the awkward facts people of long acquaintance have to step around." Most of the stories take place in and around Boston, though three of the nine are set on the same street in Irondequoit, N.Y. Oldshue's sturdy prose and potent, understated endings will satisfy fans of the classic short story.