Nate Liederbach’s Negative Spaces is a short collection of three stories — just 82 pages — packed with magical writing and imagery that sticks with you long after you’ve closed the covers. Set in the American West and Midwest — Idaho, Colorado, Kansas — this is a challenging but quite entertaining volume that demands close attention for its sometimes lyrical, sometimes raw language and complex plotting. Had this book met the length requirement for the 15 Bytes Book Awards, it may very well have been short-listed for the prize.
How’d she turn the engine over? Set aside the gun? She couldn’t have. In her retreated mind, in this present, all she recalls is her head aching a starry rhythm.
So begins “Genghis’ Knoll,” an edgy seat-of-your-pants puzzler that takes a turn leaving you somewhat breathless and admiring of this Trickster writer who leads you down such a deliciously twisted path. There’s a little sci-fi, a little Ken Kesey, a little Zane Grey and more all mixed together in this dazzling piece of writing. It has to do with a woman and her beloved, diabetic Genghis, with the “huge, gooey eyes,” whom she has tried to protect from the world at all costs. But finds she is unable to:
“A bone to the dog is not charity.”
Jack London said that. She memorized this quote, even considered more than a few times having it tattooed across her shoulders. Said, “Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”
She wasn’t a lesbo. Wasn’t a girl. Wasn’t a daughter. Wasn’t a lover. Wasn’t a killer. Was just hungry, always hungrier, but not now. She was filling up, could feel it . . .
“Across from The Fish Station” is a graphic, laugh-out-loud funny (much of the time) take on the only two casually misogynistic men (loathed by female classmates – bemusedly adored by the woman professor) ever to take a course on “Virginity and Mythos.” (It’s a big class – stadium seating.) Or at least one of them clearly is a misogynist; the other sometimes seems faintly embarrassed and perplexed by his pal. He’s not having a change of heart, but may be having a change of philosophy. He’s apparently becoming frustrated that they are living “[w]hitebread lives, Ikea lives . . . [with] only ‘Virginity and Mythos’ to break up the monotony.” One penultimate night they are treated to a viewing of some erotic, grisly, Steppenwolfian theatre. Girl-style.
The third and final story, “The Long Tunnel,” is a childhood tale of exploration and discovery, set in the early ‘80s, with a fabulous twist, of course.
“The bravery! The glory! My backyard all the way to Porter Place Shopping Center, a total scoutage of our flood-drainage system. Plan being the thing’s entirety, no climbing out. But nil reneging means a definite negotiation of the Long Tunnel. Means siblings cannot be told in case siblings rat. To the folks, the mothers, mine surely, but especially Jacob’s, that large and Jehovah-howling procreatrix of Amazonic beauty.
Why such vehemence in the gal? As my young ears have heard whisper (albeit never directly), Jacob’s uncle perished by flash flood. . . . and I stand, index fingers spittled and aloft, eyes perusing the skies for pending furor.”
It’s a wonderful Huckleberry-type adventure that, along the way, takes a sad turn to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a retirement home and a funeral. But the boys are thoroughly endearing — until they grow up. You’ll see. Liederbach again spins a complicated web.
I delighted in the author’s creative allusions to the everyday that made me reach — and reach way back — for comprehension (to Aqua-net, for instance, which I’d clean forgotten — and no, it’s nothing to do with online — to Davey Lynch; Fat Man and Little Boy; to Christian music diva Amy Grant). Younger readers — though this book clearly is not for very young readers — will have to grasp some of these from context, but that’s often readily done.
The pacing was perfect in the stories in this collection; the writing moved along at a mesmerizing clip and, although the ending of “The Long Tunnel” seemed abrupt, it was fitting. (This was the only story where I came up for air once or twice — it seemed to allow breaks for a cup of tea to be made.)
As is frequent in contemporary fiction, there’s liberal use of the F-word and adult settings. Didn’t bother me a bit; it might you, so fair warning.
Yes, those apparently are eye sockets in Daniel Barron’s cover art for the book. Filled with something or another with a straw, perhaps? It seems that a void, a “negative space,” really must be stuffed. And that’s made clear throughout Negative Spaces.
Negative Spaces: Stories
by Nate Liederbach
About the Author
Liederbach, 40, who splits his time between Eugene, OR, and Salt Lake City, is the author of the story collection Doing a Bit of Bleeding, and co-editor, with James Harris, of Of a Monstrous Child: An Anthology of Creative Writing Relationships. His Tongues of Men and of Angels: Nonfictions Ataxia is forthcoming.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.