W.W. Norton: 216 pp., $24.95
"Stuffing the open cranium with cotton, fitting the skullcap back in place and easing the scalp back over the skull, thereby restoring the facial contours, and minding the tiny stitches from behind one ear to behind another was only part of the process of embalming. . . ."
In the world of Thomas Lynch, time stands still for particulars like these, unhampered by context or meaning. Particulars: street names, species, the names of flowers and all other fixed coordinates are the provinces of the living. Apparitions, spiritual belief, faith, regrets, hopes, love and all things ephemeral are those of the dead. You'd think it was the other way around, but it turns out the dead have no use for particulars after all.
Lynch has deep roots. He is an undertaker, the son of an undertaker, and he has been the funeral director in Milford, Mich., the town in which he grew up, since 1974. He has written about his work in three collections of poems and three books of essays. He has also written about his family's Irish roots in County Clare. You might guess, and you would be right, that he is a careful writer. He takes his time. He creates his characters thoroughly, with much detail and background (more background than foreground). In this way, he cares for his reader by taking the guesswork out of the fiction. He wants you to know exactly where you are in time and space. He is more interested in truth than speculation, substance than mystery.
Suffering may be swift and deep, but Lynch does not linger on it. Where another writer might savor the drama, he washes it down with more life, more suffering. Body and blood. Suffering is ordinary, which does not render it undeserving of compassion. In his poetry collection, "Still Life in Milford," Lynch wrote of a bereaved mother's anguish that her scream wouldn't "rhyme with anything." Here, in the story "Bloodsport," we get a view of Martin, the town undertaker, preparing the body of a young woman shot by her cruel husband. We see him help the woman's mother through the funeral, and we feel his shame for the way men treated her. People pass through an undertaker's life in times of great sadness. They come and they go.
What's left are the apparitions, the traces. In "Catch and Release," Danny, a fishing guide in western Michigan, takes his father's ashes out one October morning to scatter them in a place where father and son once fished together. He mixes a portion of the ashes and eats them, an act that strikes a reader in all the right places. Living and dead, all in one body.
While Danny's coordinates are the names of streets and rivers, fish and flies, Harold, in "Hunter's Moon," uses the names of the caskets he sells for a living to navigate his world -- the " Clarksville Princess Mahogany with a tufted dusty rose velvet interior," for example, or the "Autumn Oak Ensemble." There is too much suffering in Harold's life. He becomes an apparition. His life is "void as that darkness was of any place names he could recognize; he feared the point of no return."
"Matinée de Septembre" is Lynch's version of "Death in Venice." A middle-aged professor takes a vacation at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. She becomes obsessed with a beautiful young Jamaican girl, a waitress at the hotel. Her certain decay and the young girl's rising beauty meet in the middle. She receives -- in the Christian, ecstatic, sense -- a revelation. She becomes an "acolyte to the incarnate beauty."
In the novella, "Apparitions," Adrian, a Methodist minister, struggles with the sadness of his failed marriage. He is haunted by his memories; by the hopes he had for a family; by guilt that he could not keep a home together for his two small children. He writes a self-help book about divorce that is an overnight success, but still, he cannot shake off his regrets until, one day, midsermon, he stands at the lectern singing "Let It Be" and is joined by the misfits of his community. "It was an apparition," he tells his friend Francis later. "They looked like innocents, Francis. Angels -- every one of them. I tell you, I could see their wings. . . . They just all looked so lovely to me -- these people whose people I've been burying and marrying and baptizing. . . . And all I wanted was to tell them that everything was going to be all right."
This is Lynch's pulpit, his runway, his perspective. Souls on their way, somewhere. The names, addresses, certificates and mortgages all falling from their pockets as they take off, leaving us, his readers, back on the ground, digesting ashes and watching carefully for sources of light.
Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.