Lynch’s tales of lonely souls often feel too removed
Thomas Lynch’s earlier books, such as “The Undertaking’’ and “Bodies in Motion and at Rest,’’ grew out of his work as an undertaker and funeral home director. They were rich in human detail and, despite their austere subject, moved with considerable animation. The qualities that elevated and steered his nonfiction - clarity, a love of small, personal details, humor - don’t jell as nicely in his first collection of fiction, “Apparition and Late Fictions.’’
The five stories grouped here are all about lonely individuals in the Midwest; these men and women wrestle with life histories touched by murder, adultery, and unfulfilled desire, which are sometimes moving, sometimes cold. Lynch gives us insights into characters’ needs, sadnesses, and small pleasures, but too often he operates at too great a remove, making the book read occasionally like fictional reportage, albeit beautifully written.
This is not to say that the characters in these stories are uninteresting. Lynch’s clear investment in those he writes about gives breadth to his portraiture. The stories with the closest ties to Lynch’s profession are the most convincing. The names of caskets or minutiae of embalming techniques endow these tales with confidence. Martin, the embalmer in “Bloodsport,’’ wrestles with an uncomfortable memory 20 years after the fact; he developed feelings for a young woman after her father died only to end up embalming her five years later when she was murdered by her boyfriend. Though Martin has always taken comfort in “dealing only with the parts,’’ working only with the body after death and not with living people, this distance offers little psychic safety.
The casket salesman of “Hunter’s Moon’’ similarly reels from the loss of various women in his life; although he helps to bury people for a living, they have risen through his memory, making any physical burials meaningless. Though the theme here is delivered somewhat heavy-handedly, the story retains an appealing simplicity, a morbid fable.
When Lynch’s stories steer into territory not so linked to his own life, he writes less believably. In “Catch and Release,’’ Danny, a trout bum, carries his recently deceased father’s ashes on a meandering boat trip. As he moves farther from shore, Danny reminisces about his father in an unfocused way - about their grown-up heart-to-heart regarding whether to shoot a sick dog, about his father’s catch-and-release policy with fish. Though their relationship displays a convincing mix of love and antagonism, it’s not necessarily remarkable. At the end of the story, he unites with his late father through a simple and personal act. Though surprising, the symbolism of the way the two come together is too much, too obvious, not authentic.
Aisling, the lonely poet and professor of “Matinee de Septembre,’’ has gone to idyllic Mackinac Island, Michigan, after a long conference in the United Kingdom. She extends her stay at a resort because she becomes obsessed with a female employee there. Her attachment is respectfully restrained until the end when she finally establishes a connection with the woman, in her own way - though the union is certainly climactic, it’s not satisfying. Likewise, we learn about her obsession, her late husband’s career as a successful writer, and her work in a dismayingly cursory way.
The title novella tells the tale of a minister who loses his position after a messy divorce and then becomes a wealthy self-help author specializing in divorce recovery. Though the minister’s rage and grief over his wife’s adultery is palpable, his rise to fame with his first book occurs in almost a heartbeat. This seems, and is, too good to be true. The pain and conflict in these people’s lives, as much as the satisfaction, is related in the form of soft-focus recollections, sometimes too soft to communicate.
The saving grace of all of the stories, and the quality that keeps them afloat, is the frequent beauty of their prose. Lynch is a poet, besides being a nonfiction and story writer, and he links disparate images and impressions with near-poetic cadence, bringing beauty and earthiness alike to life. The trout bum muses about his natural workplace in “Catch and Release’’: “He loved the damp rotting smell of autumn, the breeze that bore it through the tunnel of the river, the pockets of fog, the marsh and mud banks, the litter of fallen and falling trees.’’ Later, the vacationing academic embraces the scents of Mackinac Island: “The rich smell of fried food and horse manure was a welcome change from the diesel smell of London and Belfast, and the soft breeze off the big water made it all bearable.’’ These descriptions are honest and specific, and it’s easy to sense in them the truth of Lynch’s observations of the world. Lynch aims for expansiveness in his spare stories of loss, death, and passion; the collection might have been more expansive if he had focused on particulars like these.
Max Winter’s “The Pictures’’ was published in 2007. His reviews have appeared The Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times.