Coates captures California past and present in two new works

Two books by Dr. Lawrence Coates, chair of the English department, are being published this fall to acclaim. One a full-length novel and the other a novella, both are set in his native California, and both reveal veiled aspects of the Golden State, though in very different times and places.

“The Goodbye House,” Coates’ fourth novel, bears out the ancient Heraclitus’ observation that “Nothing is constant but change.” Cycles of prosperity follow times of need, landscapes are remade, and separation follows togetherness.

Set in San José in 2003 after the first dot-com bust and the tragedy of 9/11, “The Goodbye House” shows a family unraveling. “That sense of ‘We’re safe here’ after the war is gone, and people no longer feel the same,” Coates said. “The world we knew was called into question and shaken.”

Katherine Watson was living a comfortable life with her husband and two children. Nearing 50 and an events planner for a Silicon Valley firm, she enjoyed the large suburban house her husband assured her they could afford, never imagining how precarious the foundation of their lives was, and not from any impending earthquake.

Lured by the prospect of making a fortune in the dot-com world of startups, her husband has badly invested their savings and drained their bank accounts, which Katherine does not know about until, once everything is gone and he has even lost his job, he is forced to tell her. Their only recourse is to sell the big house. Unable to face what he has done, he leaves the family and disappears.

Set adrift, Katherine and the two teenagers move back into her childhood home with her aging and beloved father, who is dying of prostate cancer. Once her protector with whom she felt completely safe, now the roles are reversed and it is she who must take care of him. The fate of the family home, her haven, also hangs in the balance.

The relationship between Katherine and her father forms one of the central themes of the book, and is mirrored in an underfunded high school production of “The Tempest” that Katherine attempts to help with, as does her father at one point.  Like the magical island where Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, find refuge, the family home of the title is a refuge for the little family, although, as in “The Tempest,” it is one they must eventually leave.

A novel both of homecoming and leave-taking, “The Goodbye House,” with its blue-and-white clouds cover, illuminates with a generous spirit the life of a family and a region during a time of change.

“Camp Olvido,” the novella, won the 2015 Miami University Press Novella Prize, and will appear in late October. In a morally ambiguous tale set in the dark days of the Depression, Coates presents the anguish of a migrant labor family who must care for their sickened child while the farm owner refuses to release them from the labor contract they signed.

The fear of disease and the conditions in the camp result in a conflict that vaults an unlucky and ill-suited man into the spotlight as the one chosen to resolve this unwinnable situation. The gritty, black and white cover photo reminds us that the poverty of those times in California’s Great Central Valley still exists.

“The Goodbye House” has been published by University of Nevada Press. “Camp Olvido” will be published by Miami University Press. Coates will be appearing this fall at bookstores in Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, and California, and he will be reading from the book this November at BGSU as part of Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing.