“Writing is a manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” --John Gregory Dunne
Very few beginning writers can afford to quit their day jobs to follow their calling full time. As Lorrie Moore wisely advises in her short story “How to Become a Writer,” “First try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher.” While some new writers are affiliated with academia, others support their habit with more traditional blue collar jobs.
Nathan Poole falls into the latter category of writers. Although he has received several academic fellowships, Poole has primarily worked as a plumber and carpenter to earn a living. In Father Brother Keeper, winner of the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Poole turns from manual labor to demonstrate his creative skills in crafting language.
Set primarily in the often harsh rural landscape of southeastern United States, these stories explore individual and family issues that challenge characters, often over several generations. In “The Firelighter” and the title story protagonists have to face the failures that have shaped their lives and the decisions they have made that have led into a downward spiral. In “Year of the Champion Tree” a young man is learning to cope with the suicide of his brother while the young boy who narrates “Stretch Out Your Hand” is learning to cope with the unexpected recovery of his sister after a bout with raw milk fever claims the life of her best friend.
“The Strength of Fields” contrasts two brothers’ responses to the realization that their father, who has abandoned his family, is mentally ill. In “Fallow Dog” a young man faces the disappointing truth that his late grandfather was not who he believed him to be when he discovers badly abused bait dogs on his property. At the end of “Swing Low Sweet Chicken Baby” the protagonist is hit with the startling results of his male fertility test and the reality that he may be alone for a long time.
Parent-child relationships are at the heart of three stories: “They Were Calling to One Another,” “Lipochrome,” and “Silas.” In each of these stories parents are learning accept their children, who have become very different individuals than they imagined. The father-daughter estrangement in “A Map of the Watershed” is fueled by the protagonist’s realization that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Shelf-Awareness Reviewer Julia Jenkins summarizes the collection accurately and concisely:
The stories all feature people living simply, accommodating change if not embracing it, and struggling to move forward through whatever life hands them. Poole's voice is original, authentic and starkly honest; he is clearly compassionate toward his characters even as he walks them through terrible everyday calamities.
“Silas” is a much quieter, character-driven story about a father’s acceptance of his unusual son. Silas is fourth in line to inherit his family’s pecan farm in Georgia but cares nothing about agriculture, to his father’s dismay. He has “one too many bad habits” for his father to understand. He runs naked through the pecan grove in the middle of the night, eats food on his plate clockwise, and stares at his hands held beneath his bathwater for hours. But Silas also has artistic talent which his father discovers and embraces, as he begins down the path to acceptance.
Nathan Poole's Writing Style
Image describes Poole as “a contemporary southern voice that feels at once strange and familiar. His prose has a generous lyricism, an unapologetic love of beauty, and an unhurried pacing that feel classically southern, but a style and freshness that are his own.”
Here are a few of my favorite passages that illustrate his style:
“The smells came late that summer and left him astounded, muttering. He had known this was coming, had felt the tremors in his mind and seen familiar objects—his can of shoe polish and his TV remote—transformed in his hand into strange artifacts.” (“A Map of the Watershed,” p. 3)
“From the road these abandoned tracts—their rotund fields rising and falling away in succession—appeared like conquered giants, large slain things left on their backs in the sun, showing their swollen and furrowed underbellies.” (“Anchor Tree Passing,” pp. 74-75)
“But there was another side, he realized, a hemisphere waxed always away from him, the tidal lock of an unlit landscape that he couldn’t map or reckon with. “ (“Silas, p. 89)
“It started at the very top of his head and widened in the center as it slanted toward his right eye. He brought the hand back in front of his face and rubbed the blood between his thumb and forefinger like he would antifreeze or motor oil, testing the viscosity.” (“Swing Low Sweet Chicken Baby,” p. 166)
About Nathan Poole
Father Brother Keeper is Poole's first short story collection and was named the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction award winner. His first novella, Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, was awarded the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.