Monday, February 9, 2015

Michael Byers' The Coast of Good Intentions

Short stories have a bad habit of disappearing, originally showing up in little mags with small circulations and then appearing in collections that seldom get reviewed, get no publicity, and then languish on library shelves, which fewer and fewer people populate. If literature profs and academic critics do not find them teachable enough to anthologize in textbooks and explicate in the classroom, or complex enough to write about in journals, they just die. In my never-ending battle to keep good short stories alive, I occasionally call the attention of my readers to short story collections that, in my opinion, deserve to be read.  Today, I highlight the first collection of Michael Byers, The Coast of Good Intentions, published in 1998.

Byers, born in 1971 in Seattle, Washington, received his B.A. degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and taught elementary school in Louisiana for two years in the Teach for America program. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan and attended the writing program at Stanford University before moving back to Seattle. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University between 1996 and 1998.  His story "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" was selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories in 1995; "Shipmates Down Under" was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1997. The Coast of Good Intentions was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award and won the Whiting Award of $30,000, given to "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise," in 1999.

The stories of Michael Byers belong to a tradition in the contemporary short story, represented by Ethan Canin's 1988 Emperor of the Air and Christopher Tilghman's 1990 In a Father's Place. Like Canin and Tilghman, Byers affirms, in a seemingly simple, matter-of-fact way, the solid, unsentimental values of family, commitment, and hope for the future.  This is, of course, the kind of fiction that John Gardner urged in his book Moral Fiction (1978) and that Raymond Carver embodied in his 1983 collection Cathedral, hailed as mellower and more hopeful than his earlier, so-called "minimalist" stories.

Byers focuses primarily on men who, although certainly not simple, are simply trying hard to do their best.  They are, like the retired school teacher in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," still looking hopefully to the future, or, when they do look to the past, are like the elderly couple in "Dirigibles," reaffirmed rather than disappointed by where they have been.  When Byers takes on the persona of a woman, as he does in "A Fair Trade," once again, the past is perceived without regret, the present is accepted with equanimity, and the future is looked forward to with hope.  Even the self-absorbed father in "Shipmates Down Under," who should take responsibility for his troubled marriage, and the young widow in "Spain, One Thousand and Three," who has, for ego's sake, treated women as conquests, ultimately are simply human with all the frailties humans are heir to.

Such understanding, loving, and forgiving values are, of course, hard to resist, but they are also hard to present without either irony or sentimentality.  Byers manages to avoid both, giving the reader characters who are neither perfect nor petulant, neither ironically bitter nor blissfully ignorant, but who are rather complex and believable human beings simply doing their best, which, Byers seems to suggest, is simply the most human thing anyone can do. Here are some comments on the major stories in The Coast of Good Intentions

"Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is a satisfying story about second chances or the pleasant realization that it's never too late to live, "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is narrated by Eddie, a bachelor who has just retired after teaching high school for twenty-seven years and has taken up part-time carpenter work.  When Rosie, an old high school acquaintance, who has also never married, hires him to repair an old house she has just bought, the story focuses quite comfortably on their inevitable gravitation toward each other.  Rosie not only fills Eddie's need for a caring companion, her six-year-old granddaughter Hannah, who lives with her, gives him the child he has never had.

As Eddie makes Rosie's house sturdier, their relationship  grows as well, gradually affirming Eddie's opening sentence in the story, "This I know; our lives in these towns are slowly improving."  Eddie can imagine moving in with Rosie and Hannah, thinking that we don't live our lives so much as come to them, as people and things "collect mysteriously" around us.  At the end of the story, Eddie invites Hannah to go to the next town with him to buy radiators.  In a simple scene handled perceptively and delicately by Byers, Eddie stands under a parking-lot overhang in the rain, smoothing the sleeping child's hair, her head "perfectly round" on his shoulder. In a Carveresque final sentence, he thinks he is "on the verge of something" as he waits there listening to Hannah's easy, settled breathing.

Because Byers was only in his twenties when he wrote these stories, reviewer made much of his understanding of older characters, such as Eddie in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast."  In "Dirigibles,"  Howard and Louise, in their late sixties and retired, are visited by James Couch, a friend from the old days, who is stopping on his way from Seattle to Montana.  Couch talks about his daughter hang-gliding in outer space, and Howard realizes that he has "gone a little way around the bend, and he wasn't coming back."  When Howard sets up a movie projector to show Couch old home movies from the time when they were friends, it turns out he has put in the wrong film; what they see instead is a very brief scene of Louise, young and thin and almost all legs, running naked from one doorway to another.  Howard and Louise both laugh, remembering the event when he came returned from the navy and she came to the door nonchalantly nude.

After putting Couch to bed, the couple lie awake, and Howard says he played the greatest concert halls in Germany before the war, with ten thousand women waiting on his every need; he tells Louise to think of him like that, and she says "yes."  He tells her he flew "great dirigibles of the age" over the "great nations of the earth," and she says "yes."  And in the last line, when he says "It's true.  Everything is true," she says, "Oh, Howard. Howard."  The conclusion is a great affirmative paean to love and union, much like the end of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses.
"Shipmates Down Under" focuses on the protagonist's relationship with his nine-year-old son, who seems principled and controlled; with his six-year-old daughter, who becomes mysteriously ill; and with his wife, who feels an outsider to his connection with the children.   Because the daughter's illness threatens to dominate the story, the underlying marital conflict, which is its real subject, does not become apparent until the end when the child improves just as mysteriously as she fell ill.

The boy, who intuits the unspoken conflict between the parents, says he is writing a sequel to a boy's adventure book his father has recommended, and urges his father to take his mother on a vacation, since their planned vacation to Perth, Australia, the father's home, has been cancelled by the daughter's illness.  When the protagonist talks to his wife about this, she calls him "Mister Distant, Mister Nowhere, Mr. Say Nothing," accusing him of living in his own little world with the children while pretending she does not exist.  Although he denies this, when he sees the first sentence of his son's sequel--"My father and I live in Perth in a tiny white house with a wall around the garden"--he feels a "little bloom of secretive joy" in his heart.  The story ends with his thinking that he will apologize to his wife and that they will make it.  However, when he imagines them finally taking their disrupted trip to Australia, what he thinks of is the children remembering the experience, the hotel standing strong and unchanging, "the solid keeper of my precious cargo, these two damaged packages of my detailed dreams."

The central character in the story, "In Spain, One  Thousand and Three," Martin Tuttleman, tries to cope with the loss of his wife at age twenty-five to cancer.  A computer game designer, he has been off work so long with her illness that he now, at least temporarily, works in the support department, giving phone advice to kids playing the game he helped design.  The primary focus of the story is Martin's constant sexual fantasies about women.  Before his marriage, he had slept with every woman he could, and thinks of himself as having had more sex than anyone he knew.  Now that his wife, who completely filled his sexual life during their marriage, is dead, he has begun to fantasize about other women again.

The central crucial event in the story is an ambiguous encounter with his mother-in-law in his wife's old bedroom.  When he takes one of his shirts out of her closet, the mother embraces him, and he compares the feel of her body to that of his wife.  They begin rubbing against each other, like "shy dancers" and then abruptly push away. The story ends with his father-in-law angrily confronting him, demanding that he apologize.  When he does so, he feels good, as if he were saying he is sorry to all the women he has seduced. 

"A Fair Trade" is the longest story in the collection, and covers the longest span of time, practically the whole life of the central character Andie, beginning at age fourteen with her trip to live with her aunt for a period after her father's death and her mother's emotional breakdown, and ending with a visit to her aunt some forty years later when she is in her fifties.  However, most of the story focuses on the time Andie lived with her aunt Maggie; the rest of her life is recounted in brief summary. 

During this period, Andie has fantasies about a mysterious European man who works for the elderly couple who live across the road.  The only real plot complications occur when Maggie's unscrupulous boyfriend, who, trying to get the elderly couple's farm, threatens to tell the authorities that the man has made sexual advances to Andie; when Maggie finds out, she sends the boyfriend packing.
The last part of the story covers Andie's life after she returns to her mother--summarizing her marriage, divorce, her daughter's going off to college, and finally her move back to Seattle when she is fifty-five.  Seeing her aunt's old boyfriend, now in his eighties, on television prompts a visit to her aunt, who has adopted a gay man, and who has a boyfriend in his seventies.  Although her aunt tells her she should have a man, Andie looks forward to twenty more years of being alone.  She feels she has made a "fair trade," that her way is not a bad way to live.  As she sits in a restaurant with her aunt and her adopted son, she shuffles her feet under the table, thinking that from other tables she may appear to be dancing.

Michael Byers has published two novels and several short stories in the last two decades and is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Michigan. The Coast of Good Intentions is a book that deserves to be read and reread.


Cezarija Abartis said...

On your recommendation, I read "Dirigibles" and found it funny and wistful. I look forward to reading more. Thank you.

Cezarija Abartis said...

On your recommendation, I read "Dirigibles" and found it funny and wistful. I look forward to reading more. Thank you.