Troubled souls weather biblical trials


“Father Brother Keeper”

Nathan Poole

Sarabande Books, $15.95, 195 pages

“The type of mind that can understand good fiction,” said Flannery O’Connor, “is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”

Her words perfectly describe what readers can expect from “Father Brother Keeper,” the debut short-story collection from South Carolina writer Nathan Poole. Somber, beautifully wrought and closely observed, these 12 stories raise more questions than answers, leave out more than they say. As the title suggests, the characters’ lives are steeped in familial conflicts that test their faith in and love for each other.

Set in rural Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, they are deeply Southern tales, biblical in spirit and imagery, stark and redemptive, presenting themes ripped straight from the Old Testament: Job-like adversity, a plague, father and son clashes, ungrateful children, sibling rivalry, adultery, madness and betrayal.

A teenage girl whose unusual eye color spooks her small-town community is accused of witchcraft. A boy rebels against joining his family’s pecan-growing business by running naked through the groves. Two young girls suffer a dangerous fate when they drink forbidden, unpasteurized milk. When a family can’t name the madness that destroys one son, his brother embarks on a journey to identify trees in his honor.

Poole, a 2013-2014 recipient of the Milton Fellowship for Christian writing, explores the ways God talks to the fathers, brothers and various “keepers” in the stories — and how they talk back. Mysteries abound in the form of ineluctable trials that force the characters to change their relationships to traditions and beliefs that have been handed down through generations.

Fathers often play roles as advisers whose faith and unusual outlooks on life linger long after their children have grown. Speaking of the skin disease that has left his black skin white in places, a man reminds his son that God is responsible for everyone being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Another son, trying to grasp how his father’s unique vision may have led to a mental breakdown, compares it to holding a cricket in his closed hand: “I would part the fingers of my mind and peek at that strange and fragile thing, and wonder about it, try hard not to lose or disfigure it…”

Lush, sensual descriptions of nature both define and locate the characters. In the opening story, “A Map of the Watershed,” a man suffering spells of memory loss finds himself with no one to help him make sense of his new world. Estranged from his only daughter, he charts his increasing dementia through a map, once memorized, of the waterways in east Georgia: “At one point he could have taken a pen and paper and reproduced it in its entirety,” but now “instead of the Ogeechee and Canoochee,” he sees “two fingerlike roots that ran down from a burr in a painting so abstract it dazzled him.”

The brother of a gravely ill girl in “Stretch Out Your Hand” is able to track the progress of her fever, which he sees “as it left her body,” as “a nest of light that swam out of her hair and hung itself in the ceiling joists as if it were waiting for us to leave so it might descend. Not gone at all, but dazzling … silent as heat lightning.”

With the same sure touch, Poole homes in on the vulnerability of the troubled souls who inhabit these pages. In “Year of the Champion Trees,” a frightened man on the brink of suicide dials a call center in New Delhi: “He sounded very calm. He told the girl that he was good at being quiet and good at waking up early in the morning. He was good at memorizing the names of plants and good at drinking coffee… He told her that when he is alone he imagines the questions he would like to be asked. He would like to be asked: Who are the original members of the Miles Davis Quintet? … What is the difference between a river and a paper birch, a maple and a sycamore?”

Poole, who won the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction for “Father Brother Keeper” prior to publication, exhibits a masterful reach whether in tales of contemporary life or in period pieces set in the 1920s and ’30s; one family chronicle spans nearly a century.

Though dates and historical details provide authenticity — a movie costs 10 cents, “Rhapsody in Blue” premieres at New York’s Aeolian Hall, “Litty Bitty Pretty One’s” on the radio — these are rare, giving the stories a mythic, timeless quality.

The title story draws together themes of family tradition, race and spiritual crisis when the unemployed brother of an assistant pastor moves in with him and his pregnant wife. An unrelenting, near-biblical flood keeps the three closeted in a cramped apartment until the younger brother, falling hard for his bored, seductive sister-in-law, commits the first great wrong of his life.

Before it ends, an evangelical preacher seen preparing his sermon paces the yard behind a church, “begging for the right words, begging for the Spirit.” It’s not hard to picture Poole in this role, breathing life into these stories, all of them “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Like the preacher, he’s found the right words to lasso the spirit in a strong first collection that leaves us hoping for more from this promising new voice.