Café Eisenhower by Richard Natale

A review by Piet Bach

Café Eisenhower; Valley Falls, NY, Bold Strokes Books, 2014

Richard Natale has been a contributor to Wilde Oats since we published his first submission to us, “Refrigeration Blues”.  That story, in fact, seems to have been the germ of the present novel.  By turns maudlin, hilarious, neurotic, comic, and naïve, it told about Matt’s attempts to cope with the accidental death of his lover and the beginnings of his grieving.  At the time, I enjoyed the story and appreciated the skill and the talent Mr. Natale showed in his writing, and when more stories came to us, I continued to enjoy them individually.

caf- ¢Ã© eisenhowerNow, however, we have the full blossom of what was only a bud years ago, the story of how Matt and Nathaniel met and loved, how Nathaniel died, and what Matt did as a result of that death and the death of an uncle he barely knew.  In fact, he’s still having difficulty holding his life together when a letter announcing his inheritance from this uncle arrives pinned to the jacket of one of his grade-school students.  When he is finally able to make sense of it, he decides to go to the Eastern European city where this distant relative died and check on the property himself, with results predictably chaotic.

Taking a sabbatical, he heads for cultural and linguistic confusion.  It takes a while for him to sort out the players, but eventually, he finds he has two distinct groups of people to deal with – Olga, the young lesbian who comes to his linguistic aid and becomes his construction manager, the waitress she loves from afar, the waitress’s fiancé/husband, and assorted hangers-on, on the one hand; and the decrepit ground-floor tenants of the equally decrepit small building he’s inherited, their well-off son, and his son and son’s friends.  Along with all these, he has the remains of his own family plus his closest friend since grade school, the latter acting as anchor when she can and comic relief when necessary for his sanity.

In the course of this merriment, it turns out the author is not telling two stories – one about Matthew and Nathaniel and grief, the other about Olga and her troubles – but three: in his uncle’s effects he finds a bundle of old black school notebooks, the pages covered with handwritten text in the (unspecified) language of the country, which Olga begins to translate after dealing with the legal papers he’d initially presented her.  The notebooks are a narrative of two men’s lives from early in the century to the Communist takeover, and it becomes clear that they present the emotional history of his uncle and another man who were forced by circumstances to separate at the beginning of the war and remained separated physically after it ended.

Considering the dire possibilities inherent in such a complex outline, it’s a testament to Natale’s skill that his weaving of these three stories is subtle and masterful.  His characterizations are economical and deft, and the way he sets his scenes is appropriate without a wasted syllable.  In fact, not a word of the novel is careless, not a word falls too soon or too late in the narrative, and the twist at the end is completely unlooked for but absolutely right.  All this without any sense of its being studied or manipulative; the novel reads as easily as though it were being told over the dinner table by a close friend – not falsely cozy but shifting tone and color like good conversation.

I’ve been pleased, as I said, to read Mr. Natale’s short stories here, and very much enjoyed his novella Junior Willis when it appeared at the beginning of this year (reviewed in Issue 17), so it should not be much of a surprise to readers when I say that I think anyone who enjoys and values good fiction should get a copy of his latest book.  Very highly recommended.

Buy it here:

Bold Strokes Books, November 2014
240 pages, paperback, $16.95
ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-217-5

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