Published December 2018 by Unsolicited Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review
The Hollow Middle follows Albert Lesiak, an aging English teacher in Connecticut, who receives a windfall in delayed acknowledgment of the government’s complicity in his father’s cancer death and decides that it is time to live a different life on land he owns in Maine.
When his wife Mary suggests that they could foster or adopt autistic twin boys she fell in love with on a website and could use the stipend money in furtherance of Albert’s vision, Albert gradually perceives himself as possibly adapting to the role of patriarch.
A meditation on the curiosity of making sense and the dilemma of becoming true, The Hollow Middle ambles, mostly, and goes still for periods of various duration, acting like it’s not beholden after all to the rhetorical.
A meditation? Yes. Ambles? Yes. Goes still for periods of various duration? Absolutely, yes. It seems odd to me that these are the phrases the publisher uses to convince readers to pick up this book, whereas, I find them to be the very reasons I found this book so difficult to get through.
I had high hopes for the book right from the first chapter:
"Nothing is remarkable about the lightening hour and the mild fairgrounds air, and nothing is remarkable about the peeps and rabbits in the meadow where the birders, loyal to migration schedules, stalk when there is light to glimpse a little rarity, and nothing is remarkable about the yonder man, bespectacled, whose respiration is the stuff of late-stage hibernation."Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a vivid picture of a man passed out in a field as dawn breaks.
We spend much of the book in Albert's head; and, as an aging English teacher, Albert knows and uses all of the words. At least, I'm laying that on Albert but can't help wondering if it's not Popielaski wanting to show off his big vocabulary. Also, Albert has an opinion about every single thing. It certainly gives you a solid feel about the person Albert is but it seems that this is a part of the book that could have been curtailed quite a bit without losing anything in the story.
Mind you, Albert is not a very likable person, who is also an alcoholic. How poor Mary puts up with him is a wonder. Early on, though, in her quest to find the perfect children to pitch to Albert for fostering, Mary hits on a method to make life with Albert easier. And it struck me that Mary has likely spent a great deal of her marriage trying to work out the ways to do that. This time, it works. Albert, despite his hesitancy to become a father at 44-years-old (and the fact that he is obviously ill-suited to be responsible for anyone), is taken with the idea of doing some measure of good in the world. And making money through fostering.
There's a solid story here, buried in all of the words. Albert's not an uninteresting character and his relationship with Mary and their sons, and his dream to live off the grid, are all well written. I feel I say this too often about books, but fewer words would have made a better, tighter book. For me. But then that might not have been Popielaski's goal. Perhaps he always intended for readers to work hard to understand this character he obviously cares for.
For other opinions on the book, check out the full tour. Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours who always put books into my hands that challenge me.
John Popielaski is the author of several poetry collections*, including, most recently, Isn’t It Romantic? which won the Robert Phillips Chapbook Award from Texas Review Press. The Hollow Middle is his first novel. Find out more about John on his website, and follow him on Facebook.
*Ahhh, I didn't see this before but it explains so much about the writing. There is definitely a poetry to Popielaski's writing.