The title of Owen Egerton's new novel refers, mainly, to the centuries-old idea that our earth is hollow — we live on its crust, just above another entire world lit by a red sun and accessible only through special ports at the North and South Poles. (Protagonist Ollie and his friend Lyle are attempting to join an expedition en route to the North Pole entrance; more on that in a moment.)
With the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction, Egerton also invokes many other things with this central metaphor. "Hollow" might refer to Ollie's heart, winnowed out after his toddler son's death. It might point to the futility of modern life, especially through Lyle's self-styled outsider comments: "If you're looking for answers, Ollie, there's no better place than the center of the world." It certainly has a place in the house inhabited by a Russian prostitute, her violent pimp, and the rapidly dying man who owns the property. Above all, however, "hollow" describes how many of Egerton's characters come to terms with the idea of the divine: They have to look through life's surface to other things, like despair and death, before they reach some kind of peace.
Loading one word so heavily could be disastrous, but Egerton plays it straight and true by setting Hollow in the first person. Oliver "Ollie" Bonds was, until several years ago when his son Miles died, a respected professor of religious studies at UT Austin. He had a wife named Carrie, a lovely and cared-for suburban home, and countless students who hung on his every aphorism. "I was arrogantly object, convinced that only a nonbeliever may study what others believe." Now he lives in a tiny shack behind a beauty parlor, and his landlord is trying to evict him by placing a padlock on the front door. Ollie wriggles out through a window "the size of a laptop," and if that isn't an analogy for the grace of someone's god I'll eat my Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Ollie, three years after his entire life fell apart — which we learn about slowly, interspersed with his current bad decisions and attempts at making amends — gets most of his meals at the Agape Center, where he once served food himself. He also trained as a hospice volunteer, and it's through his refusal to stop visiting one of his dying patients, Martin, that Ollie gets tangled in a strange web of violence and deceit. Martin's tenant uses a bedroom as a brothel and abuses both his landlord and the woman involved. This maltreatment enrages Ollie — but, as he will discover, he doesn't know anyone's story the way he thinks he does.
Including his own. Ollie may not be the prototypical unreliable narrator; he knows he's erred seriously and he isn't delusional — but he can't put the pieces together in a meaningful way. In making Ollie a religious studies expert, Egerton cleverly allows for an academic take on the long-suffering Job. That scriptural character was supposedly an entirely good man, and Ollie may or may not be at the beginning (he definitely isn't, by the end). But that isn't the point. The point is how much a man can take before suffering changes him.
Enter Ashley, once Ollie's student, now finishing her PhD and visiting Austin in an attempt to re-ignite a previous flirtation that fell flat. Ashley represents romantic temptation, but also Ollie's fall — they were together during the hours when Miles died. "Nothing happened" takes on new and dark meaning, and as Ashley pursues Ollie, he runs from his memories and toward a the possibility of exploring the earth's core. (The trip organizer promises stops from the North Pole entrance all the way to "the theoretical city of Jehu," but notes that if the group can't make it "for any reason," they'll return to Murmansk and see an exhibit about prehistoric mammals. In other words, there's more about this trip that's theoretical than just Jehu.)
What can stop Ollie, or reverse his tracks? It won't be Ashley. It won't be the kind and patient Carrie. It will be, strangely, the prostitute whose actions will change his downward trajectory — though, ecause this book is suspenseful and because it does involve several deaths, that trajectory has a few plateaus on its upward path.
Ollie's voice is one of the most believable I've encountered this year, sustained by honesty, realism, and compassion. In his exile, Ollie has taken stock. His reckoning with the past creates the story's exquisite tension and makes the final scene bloom with tenderness to the extent that the book doesn't even need the hollow-earth device. The core of Hollow is anything but.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.