Robert Oldshue: Is There a Doctor in the House? (Can Somebody PLEASE Get Him Out of Here?)

Robert Oldshue
photo: Robin Rodin

One of the earliest stories in November Storm, Robert Oldshue’s Iowa Short Fiction Award-winning debut collection, has a character who teaches eighth greade math in my old hometown in the Boston suburbs, a few years before I would’ve been taking eighth grade math. (I’m pretty sure it’s not actually based on any of my junior high math teachers, but to be honest I don’t really remember any of them that well.) But what I really love about Oldshue’s fiction is the way he uses voice to carry us through a sequence of events, whether it’s the first-person narration of domestic crises in “Home Depot” or the analytical overview a psychiatrist applies to his personal and professional life while cycling through his contemporary caseload in “Mass Mental.” That last one’s interesting because, as Oldshue notes in this guest post, despite his long career in medicine, it’s the only story in the collection about a doctor. Here’s why…

Because I’m a physician who writes fiction, I’m often asked how I do both. People want to know how I find the time, and, generally, I describe the deplorable state of my lawn, seeing patients while wearing mismatched socks and unironed shirts, and forgetting dates, including the date of one very public reading. The thing people don’t ask but should is how I shed my doctor self when I’m my fiction-writing self.

And this is what I’d say: I don’t. I can’t. Instead, I make myself aware of the differences between the two so, on a given day, I know which one I’m doing.

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2 January 2017 | selling shorts |

Allegra Hyde: The Beautiful Messiness of Deb Olin Unferth’s “Pet”

Allegra Hyde
photo: Molly O’Keefe

I was delighted to learn that Allegra Hyde is a fan of Deb Olin Unferth, whom I’ve admired for years. And as I’ve been reading the stories in Hyde’s John Simmons Award-winning debut collection, Of This New World, I’m becoming a big fan of hers as well. Her stories have a strong knack for getting into the heads of emotional outcasts, like the teenage girl who’s extracted from her parents’ commune and sent to live with her grandmother in “Free Love” or the severely injured Iraq War vet obsessing over his twin brother’s encounter with his ex-girlfriend halfway around the world in “VFW Post 1492.” Like the Biblical Eve, who’s given a new voice in “After the Beginning,” Hyde’s characters have often jolted out of what should be a happy world, or walking in it but not quite able to make themselves of it, no matter how hard they strive.

I have owned many pets over the course of my life: a pet cat, a pet tree frog, a pet rock, pet Sea-Monkeys®. To quote George Eliot, “Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions, they pass no criticism.” However, though our pets may ask no questions or criticize (at least most of them), they still reveal things about us in the way we interact with them.

Deb Olin Unferth knows this and uses it to great effect in “Pet,” which was originally published in Noon and later selected for the 35th Pushcart Prize collection. Among the many short story writers I admire, Unferth stands out for her ability to elegantly fuse scenes of daily existence with both humor and poignancy. In “Pet,” a woman’s son adopts a pair of turtles. The turtles must be cared for—which turns out to be rather strenuous. The ensuing turtle drama reveals the story’s deeper concern: the woman’s relationship with her son. Both narrative threads work in tandem, with the turtle problems speaking metaphorically to a struggling mother’s parenting efforts.

These two threads are conspicuously bridged in a climactic scene toward the end of the story. Here’s a passage from that scene that shows the stream of consciousness feeling to Unferth’s writing style, swaying and bending with the emotional movement of the protagonist:

So she goes and buys some drain cleaner, the really powerful stuff. She pours it in and waits (You didn’t mention the man, says her son, didn’t say a word. Well, she does have other concerns on her mind right now) and the drain explodes. Turtle feces all over the tub and wall and the curtain and the window because that is the kind of place she lives in with her only son, a basement apartment with cheap drains in a bad neighborhood because her husband divorced her and left, even through she stopped drinking, and he never calls his son, not even on his birthday, never sends enough money, and there is turtle shit on the wall and she has to be up early, and meanwhile years are going by, her son growing up and she fading further from his mind.

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28 December 2016 | selling shorts |

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