In his introduction to Scott Edelman’s tightly woven novella “The Hunger of Empty Vessels,” Gene O’Neill comments that Edelman’s writing “transcends genre.” What does that mean? Put simply, it’s not the supernatural elements of this darkly poetic tale that will haunt your dreams after you finish reading — it’s Edelman’s brutally honest look at the human knack for making a horror of one’s own life — and those of the ones we love.
“The Hunger of Empty Vessels” is the story of Christopher Portobello, a man who seems to be clinging with fingers and feelings alike to the last good thing in his life: his troubled son, Joey.
Circumstances seem to conspire at every turn against Portobello and his son. Portobello is a cubicle-dwelling stock trader who is on the bubble at his place of work, and Joey seems unable to make an emotional connection with anyone except his father.
It doesn’t help that Portobello and his ex-wife, Angela — who, tellingly, he sometimes still refers to as his wife — stand on opposite sides of an emotional gulf that is being made steadily wider thanks to their ongoing legal fight over his already tenuous visitation rights.
The opening scenes of “The Hunger of Empty Vessels” seem as if they could be set anywhere in our depersonalized modern American landscape, and Portobello’s profound sense of loneliness and failure becomes one of the tragic tale’s leitmotifs. Everything he sees is out of reach: beyond a fence, over a wall, through a window, behind the slats of a closet door.
Edelman raises the stakes on this tale of domestic despair by throwing the reader a paranormal curve ball: a mysterious man is spying on Joey and reveling in the boy’s moments of pain, anger, and shame. This is no mere stalker or pervert; it is “a thin man, wrapped in a dingy suit … now so infused with dirt and dust as to be beyond color.” Looking as if he “had only recently begun to recover from a long illness,” this intruder appears as if he had been freshly exhumed from the grave.
Portobello convinces himself that this ghoulish presence is haunting Joey, and he risks losing his already fragile visitation rights in order to defend his son.
But is Portobello imagining this interloper? That’s the question at the heart of this story, and it’s to Edelman’s credit that he doesn’t answer it for the reader. With his literate, powerful prose and masterful subtlety, Edelman challenges his readers to dig into his text and participate in the formation of the narrative. The part of the story that lives only in the mind of the reader is just as vital to its interpretation as what the author has brought to the page.
Those who are inclined to find their horrors outside themselves will interpret the tale’s grim ending in one light; less forgiving self-critics who believe our faults lie not in our stars but in ourselves might well derive a different meaning from it.
Regardless of how one chooses to perceive the story’s conclusion, the narrative journey is made worthwhile by Edelman’s deft word-smithing. In one scene, as Portobello waits for his son to exit his school and board a “short and squat” bus, the consumptive metaphors are particularly delicious:
“Angela was sure that this school was what Joey needed, but those buses just ate at him, even though Portobello knew that going to a normal school wouldn’t mean it would all be normal again.”
And from later in the same scene:
“He hadn’t intended to end his day this way when he’d arrived there late that morning. He’d thought, understating his need, that he’d take one hungry glimpse at Joey, and then, sated, go back to his office.”
The true terror in this story isn’t the wight that Portobello sees (or thinks that he sees) spying on Joey; it’s the hunger void of form that defines Portobello’s empty center as a man. (It’s also a clever touch that in a tale of a man who believes that he and his son are being stalked by emotional vampires, our protagonist’s surname should happen to be that of an edible fungus.)
“The Hunger of Empty Vessels” is an unnerving work that peers into the darkest corner of the human soul and makes one fear what lurks at the bottom of that abyss — but also makes it impossible to look away. I dare you to try.