In this debut collection, Yates explores, in precise prose, domestic life at its most intimate
Nearly everybody here is looking for a home, be it real or metaphorical. In “Oceanside, 1985,” a young couple with a baby on the way makes plans to build a new house; the protagonist of “A Certain Samaritan” derails a long return trip home by getting caught up in the lives of the Jesus-freak couple he picks up on the side of the road; and in “Persimmons,” a man is actually at home but trapped on the roof, as the ladder he’s just climbed falls away. Yates (English/Univ. of Calif., Riverside) loves accidental meetings, and he focuses on relatively modest concerns and conflicts, though nobody would confuse him with a minimalist. His writing is distinguished by lengthy, detail-rich paragraphs and a taste for bone-dry ironic humor. His work also possesses a kind of academic formality that makes much of it feel overworked, with any emotional resonance swallowed up by the author’s carefulness: The cuckolded art scholar in “Gisela,” for example, visits the young man sleeping with his wife, pisses on his carpet and explains that “the path of my urine shows no respect for that arbitrary delineation of field.” Luckily, the collection is book-ended by two winners. The opener, “The Black Mercedes,” is a powerfully comic tale of a couple whose house-sitting gig becomes increasingly catastrophic after the arrivals of an old friend of the homeowner, who dies almost immediately after showing up, and his lusty young granddaughter. In the title story, a downhearted retiree volunteers to talk to college students about his experiences; the emotional twists that follow as he grows attached to one woman in particular are deeply affecting.
Yates is a wise stylist who knows exactly where he wants to go, but you’ll want to shake the stiffness out of most of these stories.