I’m a big fan of those “recommended if you like…” lists that sometimes get appended to book reviews online. Oh, they’re not always perfect, but it’s interesting to see what other like-minded consumers are buying, and sometimes you can even find something you really enjoy. (Or, alternatively, it’s fun to follow RIYL links and see how far from your actual tastes you can end up) So, when Barnes & Noble.com noted “recommended if you like David Sedaris and Dave Eggers” on its page for The Empty Café, I was foolish enough to believe its claims. Based on the name-dropping, I conjectured that this might be a series of snarky, darkly funny based-on-real-life essays. If fans of Sedaris and Eggers liked it, I reasoned, it had to be good. Right?
Wrong on all counts, I’m afraid. In reality, this is an incestuous snarl of boring, repetitive stories, all rehashing the same tired themes and cardboard characters (when they’re not actually stealing characters and plot twists from each other). Missing children who suddenly and inexplicably return are a popular theme, as are disappointed parents who have washed their hands of their deadbeat kids. So, bizarrely, are “smoked meat sandwiches,” which appear in three out of eight stories – Hoffman’s characters just can’t stop going out for smoked meat sandwiches, or ordering them in, or discussing the possibility of obtaining and consuming them. I don’t even know what a smoked meat sandwich is, but after reading this book, I have a feeling that I’m really missing out.
“Officer Bill” is a tedious, strangely dull story about a married couple vacationing in Thailand who lose their boy in a crowded market. The panicked parents endlessly nag Officer Bill, a kindly Thai policeman schooled in the U.S. who harbors a secret sorrow of his own.
“Jeremy Grafic’s Brother” is an ambling and directionless tale of a quiet college professor whose life is turned upside down when it comes to light that he’s the older, estranged brother of the current rock-star heartthrob, Jeremy Grafic.
“The Empty Café,” the titular story, is a creepy and irritating piece about a waitress who suddenly recognizes her long-lost kid brother when he comes into her coffee shop. Affecting a worldly-wise, vaguely maternal attitude toward him, she invites him to stay with her. She swiftly becomes fixated upon the idea of seducing her young brother, who doesn’t realize who she is. A series of violent homicides plagues the neighborhood, but the murders fall by the narrative wayside as the waitress debates whether or not to go Flowers in the Attic on her little bro.
“Solitude” is a cloyingly pretentious novella about…well, I’m not sure, really. Solomon Rose is a lone wolf and bibliophile, back in his hometown of Vancouver after decades of aimless wandering. Max Ashe is also returning to Vancouver after long years away. The two end up at the same bed-and-breakfast, a tiny place run by an obnoxious, garrulous fat woman and her sullenly inhospitable husband. Assorted guests pontificate to each other about philosophy, literature, and Higher Truths, and then Solomon shoots somebody. Why? Well, it doesn’t say. Solomon stutters his way through an infuriatingly vague explanation that explains nothing, and…that’s all, folks. Thanks for reading.
Michael Hoffman is a terrible writer. Cursed with a tin ear for dialogue, he’s unable to produce even one line that sounds remotely natural; instead, he alternates between long-winded philosophical discourse, and two-word sentences followed by a page of extrapolated meaning. At no point do his characters feel like real people, and it doesn’t seem as though that particularly bothers Hoffman. He just wants a forum for expounding on incest, and missing children, and smoked-meat sandwiches.
The stories are further hobbled by their ludicrous and underdeveloped plots, most of which remain unresolved (assuming you can muster up the will to care what happens). It’s never clear why characters do what they do, or think what they think, so it’s impossible to become emotionally involved in the events that unfold. I get the impression that Hoffman is shooting for some kind of surreal, Kafkaesque feel, where disaffected characters muddle through bureaucratic tangles and attempt to make sense of a senseless world. Needless to say, he fails, and what we get is an incomprehensible, bombastic mess.
Recommended if you like pretentious, sophomoric harangues, The Empty Café is empty of any redeeming value.