A Review of The Empty Cafe by Michael Hoffman

 All Hoffman’s stories show events occurring on a plane different from the one that we occupy. And they concern truths that have their own imperatives. However much this demands of the reader, this strange world is in the hands of a gifted storyteller. His people may be puzzling but his manipulation is magical.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Empty Cafe, by Michael Hoffman
1st Books, 2001, ISBN 0 75961 986 7,
259 pages, $10.95

Some books are selected by a publisher but with ever-increasing frequency it is the author that chooses publication. Although many of these books are very bad indeed, some are surprisingly good. Michael Hoffman is responsible for the publication of The Empty Cafe and its quality justifies his confidence. Although Hoffman has offered earlier works to conventional publishers, their response had always been so discouraging that he self-published The Empty Cafe without offering the book to them.

Michael Hoffman was born in Montreal in 1953. His girlfriend, now his wife, became homesick for Japan. He followed her, has lived in Japan ever since and has a son. His knowledge of Japan and his skill as a writer has made for him a career in journalism. For nine years – a period that he describes as bleak – he taught English. His immediate plans are a week’s meditation at a Zen temple near Kyoto. There will be a novel issued next year and he will follow this with another collection of short stories.

“Officer Bill” concerns tourists who have lost their child in Bangkok. They retrieve him with the help of a Thai policeman into whose personal life they gain unexpected access and it is a moving experience. The style of the story is spare and a little clumsy. It teeters on the edge of failure but rights itself in time. The opening story of a collection is often the most expendable in the book.

In “Jeremy Grafic’s Brother” a staid professor of history suffers an identity crisis when his much younger brother becomes famous as a rock
star. The reflected glory distorts his concept of himself and he experiences guiltily a feeling of freedom when his brother commits suicide. A fan attempted suicide in the same manner as her hero. The parents ask the professor to see her in the hope that his presence will help her adjust to both her loss and the failure of her attempt. She is
unexpectedly a normal young woman, poised and self-confident. The professor, aware of his inadequacies, leaves but in his car suffers a
nightmare experience. Hoffman handles the elements of this story admirably but the reality of the final experience is not certain. This tentative approach to what passes for reality will form an important part of many of the stories to follow.
“Haruki” is a long piece, something between the short story and the novella. The final story in this collection is certainly a short novel. “Haruki” is much like the more loosely constructed stories of Chekov and consists of many episodes distributed in two parts. We follow from various points of view the story of a teacher accused of rape but Haruki is the main character, a journalist assigned to the rape case and whose troubled relationship with his wife bubbles quietly but grimly just to one side of the reader’s focus. The story ends in the visit that Haruki pays to a sympathetic headmaster who offers him help and understanding. Throughout we find characters questioning the factuality of reality. In later stories it will be the reader that poses questions.

“Beauty” has flaws. The friendship between the two men who should be enemies does not convince and the O. Henry style ending is, as such endings must be, a little desperate. But the flaws spring from a misjudgment of generosity rather than from incompetence. The older man puts his life unconditionally in the hands of the younger man, a theme that will be heard again in the title story of the book.

“Rain” is a beautifully written story but the thread is mysterious. It describes the stresses within an outwardly normal family, a family consisting of father, mother and only child. This pattern persists in Hoffman’s stories with a few exceptions. In this story the son accuses his mother of infidelity. Is the accusation false? We never learn as we discover that the inception time of the infidelity corresponds to the time when the mother gave up on her son ever amounting to anything. The husband dares not ask and the wife, possibly because of her innocence, has nothing to say and no consciousness of guilt.

“Father and Son” plays on the same theme as “Rain” except that the father confesses to a senseless murder that the son claims to have
committed. For unexplained reasons the police never arrive to arrest the father and the story ends with a trivial exchange between father and son. There are many unanswered questions. Did the son actually confess to his father or is this a fantasy of the father who seems to spend most of his time sleeping? There is a possible clue in this. Since the police never arrived, did the father actually confess? There is a probing of reality in this simple but disturbing narrative. In response to my inquiries Hoffman replied that the son did actually confess to the murder but he does not profess to know if the son was telling the truth. He added: “It’s a strange world; the notion that it is fundamentally comprehensible is a dangerous illusion. Understanding is a phase we pass through on the way to confusion, which is a deeper and truer feeling.”

“The Empty Cafe” displays a vividly untypical group of men and women. Marty is a frustrated musician who owns the cafe. Melanie works for him and to her he offers himself unconditionally. But she is embarked on the seduction of her brother whom she has not seen since he was six. Pete Harris, gifted musician, a recluse and son of one of Melanie’s neighbors, is the first to be suspected of the brutal killing of a neighbor’s dog. There are a variety of crotchety old women, Melanie’s neighbors. Coincidence is the rule of this story. Melanie’s brother wanders into the Empty Cafe and does not recognize his sister which makes her seduction of him possible. Marty knows Pete Harris. The events are unusual but not particularly relevant and the ending is normal and unrelated to the preceding events. Its calculated understatement is more chilling than anything more dramatic.
The last and longest piece has a prologue and an epilogue. There are two parts. The first contains six chapters and the second part has nine chapters. The hero is Solomon Rose. He is a disengaged man. It takes special narrative strategies to write about a man who rejects society. Any kind of engagement will be tragic. Solomon lives at a board and breakfast run by a fat woman whose attention to him he finds threatening. Other boarders are Max, the man who looks like somebody; Howard, a moody young man, mistakes him for the dead Jim Morrison; and Professor Wren and his family. Other boarders show up elsewhere in the narrative and one of them has a sister who breaks down Solomon’s reserve by declaring her love for him. The owner of the board and breakfast gives a last breakfast as a party to close the establishment. At this party Solomon draws a gun and kills Max. He confesses to Professor Wren that he was exacting punishment for the brutal rape and murder of his daughter, an event that took place years ago. Was Max the criminal? Solomon won’t say. Thus the question as to how his act may or may not have been retribution remains unanswered.

All Hoffman’s stories show events occurring on a plane different from the one that we occupy. And they concern truths that have their own imperatives. However much this demands of the reader, this strange world is in the hands of a gifted storyteller. His people may be puzzling but his manipulation is magical.
For more information about The Empty Cafe, visit:
The Empty Cafe

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: