Tricks of the Short Story Trade

Short story writers are most like magicians, plying their craft with illusion and misdirection. Both want their audiences to believe what they present, to think it as real. They don’t want them to notice or even think about what goes on to make the magic.

Which makes Thomas Lynch a magical story writer. The poet and essayist’s first book of fiction is deep and convincing, full of mystery and wonder. Even when writing from a female point of view, Lynch makes us see what he wants us to see and, more importantly, feel what he wants us to feel. If there’s a trick to what he does it’s to make us think  that writing is no trick at all.

The characters here–a man taking his father’s ashes in a Thermos to be dispersed,  another man who befriends a young girl after her father’s death only to see her murdered, a casket salesman remembering his three wives, a widow attracted to a younger woman–spend their time in the present considering their past. It’s as if they haunt their own lives. The central figure in the novella “Apparition,” a former minister who, after divorce, writes a self-help best seller entitled Good Riddance, comes to an anti-realization after considering all the realizations he’s experienced.  The divorce gave him new life. It came as a kind of death.

A somber air, like that of a funeral home, resides over everything here. This is a book of cancers, hemorrhages and shot-gun blasts. Lynch’s day-job, if you can call being a mortician a day job, gives him insight into a certain trade–remember that casket salesman?–as well as a hard view of life’s mysteries. If his characters seem like ghosts it’s because so many spirits move through their lives. Sadness is so widely held that it becomes something matter-of-fact.

Fishing and hunting, with a nod to Hemingway, become symbols of mens’ understanding and relationship to each other as well as a metaphor of death. The story “Catch and Release” is a snap shot of high-end outdoors men escaping their lives in the woods and streams. The woods and streams are full of such men, all looking to take something. Its narrator recalls catching his first fish and the awful choice it presents: “Kill it, eat it, show his mother. Let it go.” The release of his father’s ashes, in an unexpected way, only extends the metaphor (for an excellent father-son-fishing relationship memoir see John McPhee’s “The Patch” in the February 8, 2010 edition of The New Yorker).

The only story in which in which the smoke and mirrors don’t completely hide Lynch’s masterful sleight-of-hand is the one that most closely mirrors Lynch’s experience. “Bloodsport” goes into great detail of the pathologist’s and mortician’s art, so much so that it feels as if Lynch is manipulating us. “Stuffing the open cranium with cotton, fitting the skullcap back in place and easing the scalp back over the skull…” It’s all part of the process of embalming, laying out the dead, the funeral and all part of “the larger concept of a death in the family,” making it more of a “manageable prospect.” It’s as if Lynch has pulled back the wizard’s curtain and revealed a corpse.

Matinee de Septembre” also exposes  Lynch’s craft but in another way. He writes in the person of a 40-year-old woman, the widow of a respected older poet, and his character is a male fantasy of what a 40-year-old woman should be: “she had the bosom of a woman half her age. She looked in good in no bra or a Wonderbra, pantsuits or little black dresses, vintage lingerie or plaid pajamas.” Of course, she finds something more attractive, younger, and this person, also a woman, becomes an object of imagination and fixation, another step toward an end.

The longer Lynch’s stories, the better.  The novella “Apparition” takes its time and the telling is done so well we want it to go on. Lynch makes his character’s evolution so believable that we agree with it every step of the way, even at end when he concludes that all those former conclusions may have been misguided. This is true throughout the book. Lynch’s experience as a poet gives his writing musical tones and he exploits the sound of language unabashedly. “Primrose, Maple, hemlock, Helen…” the casket salesman thinks as he walks. The narrator of “Apparition” considers how far he’s come: “the little clapboard manse on Cory Street behind the church to this three-story palace with its towers and turrents, bay windows and balconies, its dozen cut-brick chimneys…” Lynch also has a good ear for the topical and trendy thinking. “Some divorces, like some marriages,  are made in heaven,” writes the lead in “Apparition” in one of his self-help books. The wealthy widow of “Matinee” thinks the first-class section of her flight hold “Bigger seats for bigger asses….big, fat balding asses whose wives only traveled with them for the shopping ops, the change of scenery and the chance of meeting someone really interesting.” It’s moments like these, when Lych’s characters see the illusions that they themselves accept as reality, that makes reading him a magical experience.–Cabbage Rabbit

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