June 24, 2013

Book Review: "Byzantium" by Ben Stroud

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Byzantium
By Ben Stroud
Graywolf
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

Once, during a barroom conversation with a writing teacher, I slurred something about not wanting to write relationship stories. By "relationship stories" I meant "quiet domestic dramas" of the type commonly found in writing programs. What bothered me most about those kind of stories is the idea of a life spent writing them. You meet enough authors of a certain age who specialize in the that kind of thing, and you begin to notice certain parallels. These are people who still go to pieces like a middle-schooler during a breakup, who experiment with alcoholism and compulsive gambling, who explode their lives every four or five years, all basically for the purpose of mining new source material. There are a lot of ways to be unhappy as a writer, but that kind of life has always seemed particularly brutal to me.

Back in that bar--let's call it Flippers Lounge in Missoula, Montana--my teacher replied to my slurred remark in pretty much the way you would expect, like a wise philosopher king: "Is there really any other kind of story?"

You can tell that Ben Stroud, the author of the new short story collection Byzantium, which won the Bakeless prize from the Breadloaf writer's conference, has grappled with this question. His stories manage (for the most part) to not be about relationships, but instead function as something like insightful expressions of life's strangeness. The stories also carry with them the unmistakeable flavor of the new. And that's the answer I wish I had given my teacher when he asked if there was any kind of story that wasn't about relationships--I want to express life's strangeness, and I want to do it in a new way. Ah, well.

The best stories in this collection are so unfamiliar, so varied and unique, that everyone who reads this collection will likely have different favorites. My preference is "Borden's Meat Biscuit" in which a grieving inventor with a stockpile of tens of thousands of pounds of meat biscuit (his unspoilable invention, which bears a striking resemblance to dog food) enters into an ill-fated business agreement with an insane would-be conquistador. I also enjoyed the two linked stories "The Don's Cinnamon" and "The Moor," about the private eye Burke, son of a white plantation owner and a slave. The writing in the two linked stories has such a distinct tone and strong cadence that it almost begged to be read aloud. The audio version of this book would probably best be performed by Colonial American carnival barker, one who comes into town on a horse-drawn carriage intent on selling "health tonic."

Alas, the more conventional stories that take place in the present day are less exciting. "East Texas Lumber," for example, is enjoyable enough, but I'm pretty sure the exact same story appeared in McSweeney's Issue 30 under the title "Stowaways," by Nick Ekkizogloy. Just substitute rural Georgia for East Texas, substitute electrical line workers for roofers, substitute a flood for a tornado, and there you have it. I'm not accusing Mr. Stroud of plagiarism, just saying that this story is nothing new. Same with the story "At Boquilla's," in which a couple hikes near the Rio Grande River while on the verge of divorce. I found that story more effective when I read it in Kevin Canty's Stranger in this World years ago, under the title "Moonbeams and Aspirin." Just substitute the Rio Grande for "Florida, near the gulf." Those are just two examples, but I don't consider myself at all well-versed in the short story form. The problem is that the conventional material plays to Mr. Stroud's weaknesses--his sentences aren't particularly inventive, and his descriptions aren't particularly strong. On the other hand, the strange historical fictions play to his strengths--inventiveness, summary, and authority, which Mr. Stroud possesses in spades.

The bottom line is that this is a strange and mostly enjoyable collection of stories. I would compare it to Patrick DeWitt's recent novel The Sisters Brothers both for the new take on historical subjects, and the joyfulness in the writing. I will keep my fingers crossed for a future novel featuring the private eye Burke and that crazy pulsing voice.

Out of 10: 8.5

Read even more about Byzantium: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads

Filed by Travis Fortney at 10:23 PM, June 24, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |