The Coast of Good Intentions
by Michael Byers
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company
163 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Byers' Pitch is True
Reviewed by Charles Smyth
Soon after publishing his first book of stories, in 1997, the novelist Robert Stone likened the short story to "a pitch in baseball. It's one continuous movement that ideally has to, like a pitch, break and then with a kind of retrospective inevitability end up in a catcher's mitt. It's a beautiful form when it works, but it's very difficult."
In his first book of fiction, The Coast of Good Intentions, Michael Byers shows us how beautiful the form can be. At the age of 28, he has produced a collection of eight graceful stories, evoking throughout the low-ceilinged horizons of his native western Washington. Byers understands that it's not the rain that gets to Pacific Northwesterners so much as the perpetual grayness hanging over the landscape -- and the spirit. "The sky hung sullen under endless clouds," he writes in "Blue River, Blue Sun." And, "Every morning the gray city rose in the bedroom window as though it were a thousand years old and unchangeable."
Like any serious fiction writer, Byers is concerned with what it means to live as a human being in the world. He shows a mature, almost tender compassion for his characters as they grieve over divorced or deceased loved ones, cope with a child's sudden, life-threatening illness, stare into the void of retirement, grapple with the absurdities of growing up. His stories are about people coming to terms with the hands life has dealt them and how they've played the cards.
He opens the book with "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," a remarkably authentic portrait of a man in late middle age. Early in the story, Eddie (no last name given, or needed), a high school history teacher now retired after 27 years, recalls the rhythm and tenor of his days in the classroom. "There was an easy sort of swinging progression through the years, from holiday to holiday, and the kids were often interested and articulate, and there were lots of good mornings when they were thinking and their hands were raised, or I'd have a sweet kid in a certain period who always understood my jokes, or pretended to."
In "Blue River, Blue Sun," Joseph, a painfully divorced, 50-something geology professor, reflects on why his wife left him after so many years. "She had run out of patience with his general gloominess and had found a younger, less dreary man -- there was probably more to it than that, but not much more."
After 40 years away, Andie has returned to Seattle in "A Fair Trade." Over those four decades, she has married, had a daughter, and divorced, and has made a successful career in computers. She sees that she "has given up certain things in life, and it saddens her, a little. She has faint hope of marrying again; she looks forward only to twenty years of her bathtub, her house, the figuring and refiguring of her money." But Andie reckons she has "made a fair trade, all things considered. It is a way to live."
Michael Byers grew up in Seattle, and the city is a recurring character in this collection. He has an MFA from the University of Michigan and has won a number of fiction prizes from literary magazines. His stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Prize Stories 1995: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories 1997. Byers's work has been compared to that of Tobias Wolff and the late Raymond Carver, fellow Northwesterners and acknowledged masters of the short story. But beyond the common geography and obvious skill of the three writers, the comparison doesn't really hold up. Both Carver and Wolff have a sharper edge than Byers, and a burning intensity fires many of their stories. There's also more humor in their work, although much of it probably too dark for mainstream tastes. Byers has a less turbulent soul, more pensive than angry. And, where Carver was famous for his spare, clean style, Byers likes to stretch out his sentences.
Though not yet 30 years old and just beginning a promising career in literary fiction, Michael Byers understands the human condition more clearly than many writers twice his age. He knows how the story ends:
"In the rain and cold after Christmas Joseph scattered his father's ashes illicitly into Lake Washington, leaning over the side of a rented aluminum canoe. His father spread like dust or pollen over the rolling surface of the water, bits of bone spinning among the gray sift. That was all it came to: years of eating and worrying, and this was how you ended up, a mark on the water." | October 1998
Charles Smyth is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Seattle.