In an author's introduction to these 16 short stories, Donald Lystra, a retired engineer, explains why he writes fiction: "I've always believed that insights drawn from stark reality are of limited value when it comes to the most important questions of life." Hoping to discover "fundamental truth" by blending "fact and imagination," he sets most of the stories in Michigan. Bored with life in the Lower Peninsula, his characters travel north where, in Charlevoix, Seney and elsewhere, the Hemingway mythos endures.
Occasionally, Lystra mimics Hemingway, as in "The Five O'Clock Train." Describing a married couple lunching in a Paris cafe, Lystra writes, "They had walked over from their neighborhood and they were quite tired. It was a sunny day and the boulevard was filled with pedestrians and the traffic in the street was very heavy." The homage to Hemingway, the stories with hunting and fishing in them, a story about a day trip from Paris to Auvers where Van Gogh died, these are for the most part compelling. An accomplished writer, Lystra understands his craft and the places he describes.
Yet shortcomings arise. "Reckless," "Hesitation" and too many other stories rework the same theme. Stifled by their lives in Flint, Grand Rapids (Mich.) and Detroit, the characters yearn to change "in some desperate and reckless way." Sometimes as in "Treasure Hunt" they succeed; other times not. Another reservation? Once or twice the "fundamental truth" Lystra discovers might seem more important to the author than to the reader.
On the other hand, this is a true and steady book despite the thematic redundancy. In "Speaking of Love Abstractly," a Chicago lawyer enamored of his much younger French tutor has a temporary problem with his heart. Recovered again, he recognizes the magic that has brought Mademoiselle Carnot to him.
In "Marseille," an irritable factory worker in Saginaw wonders about life in Marseille. When he most needs her, he finds strength in his wife as though "Loretta and Marseille had joined together into a single splendid thought." In "Curmudgeon," the former owner of "Jimmy's Best-Buy Appliances" of Saginaw brings a young hitchhiker and her son to his cabin on Lake Superior.
The concluding story, a search for the self vis-à-vis Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," concerns an aging man's trip across the Mackinac Bridge and up to Seney, Mich. Blending fact and imagination again, "Bridge" illuminates the themes and patterns that precede it and in so doing illuminates life. In the story, the Mackinac Bridge "that spans the five-mile gap between Lakes Michigan and Huron" connects illusion and reality, past and present, last story and first. I won't forget this beautiful piece and what Lystra accomplishes in it and in this wise book.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.