Told from the perspectives of narrators looking back at pivotal moments, the four stories and novella in Thomas Lynch's "Apparition & Late Fictions" feature characters who sustain damage, catch glimpses of oblivion and make compromises. Best known for his nonfiction, including "The Undertaking," as well as his poetry, Lynch, in his first fiction collection, evokes Hemingway's stoicism, Carver's darkness and Flannery O'Connor's irony.
In "Catch and Release," a disaffected Michigan man takes his father's ashes with him on what would have been their annual trip down the Pere Marquette River. The man chafes at the injustice of his hardworking, self-sacrificing father dying before he had a chance to retire. Mystified by death, stymied by grief, he looks for an explanation in nature, wondering if happiness may be experienced through, not after, trouble.
Lynch's affinity for ministers, funeral directors and casket salesmen as main characters allows him to comment on the threshold experience of witnessing human encounters with eternity. Those who make a paid profession out of caregiving must balance genuine empathy with self-preservation and advancement. This combination creates a functional ambiguity in which caregivers perform barbaric tasks while offering civilized condolences. Their job literally is caring. But do those whose hands touch death have deeper insight into the void?
"Matinee de Septembre" is a deft and humorous Americanization of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," set during the 2008 stock market crash. After a triumphant poetry reading in Britain, widowed professor Aisling Black returns home before fall semester, and treats herself to a stay on Mackinac Island. In a reversal of the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath paradigm, Aisling is the "bibliographer and minder of his reputation" for her late husband. The author of two slim volumes of her own poetry, Aisling has pursued in her work "a beauty beyond the idea of beauty," whose incarnation she discovers in Bintalou, a young hotel worker.
Adrian Littlefield of the title story suffers betrayal. Worse than the loss of his discontented wife and a marriage that was "a hedged bet against hunger and loneliness" is the public humiliation of being cuckolded. Passive and reactive, he finds redemption through a late-night visitation from Mary de Dona, the fourth-grade teacher at the local Catholic school. He achieves commercial success as the author of "Good Riddance: Divorcing for Keeps." Utilizing a lucid, measured prose style, Lynch's characters circle back to past events and ideas. This act of telescoping extends the observation while narrowing it -- an appropriate device for Lynch's obsessive, myopic characters.
Witnessing the sites of their humiliations, recognizing the endemic limitations of any era, and embracing their animal existence, Lynch's characters possess the power to sustain damage and still appreciate a larger, more beautiful world.
James Cihlar is the author of the poetry collection "Undoing." He lives in Minneapolis.