In William Lychack's world, humans never really connect with one another and their needs and desires are so at odds with those of their intimates that each character lives in a cold, tender world of alienation and disappointment. In his 2004 novel, "The Wasp Eater," Lychack used this bleak sentimentality as well as delicately tragic prose to craft an affecting story of a young boy caught up in the illusion that he could reunite his parents. "The Wasp Eater" worked because the dark turns were entwined with a main character whose fragile heart rested gently in the reader's hands for the duration of the story.
In his new short-story collection, "The Architect of Flowers," Lychack's prose is still as lovingly crafted as Grandma's burnt orange afghan. But these stories, some of which have appeared elsewhere, offer few moments of the earlier novel's narrative grace.
Instead, "The Architect of Flowers" features opaque and mostly insubstantial stories about disparate characters in varying states of agony.
Most of the stories in Lychack's collection evoke nonspecific small-town Americana with Elks clubs, farmhouses and long country drives. Likewise, most of the stories have no discernible time peg; a few flirt with magical realism and one is a quizzical fable about a schoolteacher floated in from the sea. In the first story, "Stolpestad," a small-town policeman is called upon to shoot an injured dog, but what should be a straightforward act of compassion is twisted into a horror by mistakes and misunderstanding.
The titular story is a diffuse, wandering mood piece about the wife of a flower breeder and the grown son who has flown their earth-and-pollen world.
"Thin End of the Wedge" evokes "The Wasp Eater" with its lonely boy losing his father. "Griswald" is a lightning-fast glimpse into the mind of a possibly molested boy. "Hawkins" uses the act of field-dressing a struck deer as a mediation on, well, it's hard to say what it's about; perhaps masculinity, perhaps social awkwardness, perhaps an opportunity for the author to make the reader squirm with the reality of mammalian viscera.
There are pleasures to be mined from this collection, fleeting moments when Lychack's careful words create a picture of bats in the waning dusk or a child coming upon mating parents in a loamy garden bed. More often, Lychack aims to unsettle seemingly only for the thrill of wallowing in darkness for its own sake. But, like a funeral with no decedent, Lychack's stories are all organ music and crepe, with no one for the assembled to mourn.
Cherie Parker is a book critic in Washington, D.C.