The heart's unspeakable cargo
by Keith Taylor
We've been lucky in Ann Arbor to have had a front-row seat as Thomas Lynch has developed his writing career over the last thirty years. Lynch, of course, is the undertaker from Milford who has created a unique place for himself in the world of letters--in this country, in Britain, and in Ireland. Certainly the combination of his two occupations has contributed to the attention he has received: a recent PBS Frontline focused on Lynch and his family business, and an even more elaborate film version about his work was produced by the BBC and had an American debut at last year's Traverse City Film Festival. Lynch himself will joke that he is "the go-to guy for death."
But none of this would have happened if Lynch did not have a particular vision, and if he had not done the work to find a strong voice to communicate that vision. First in his poetry and then in his award-winning essays, Lynch positioned himself as an intimate observer of our fragile relationship with our own mortality. More than most writers, he has watched people deal with grief and find ways to continue on in the face of it. He has seen the tentative possibilities of joy that arise even from what might seem overwhelming loss. He wrote about it stylishly, with humor and compassion. But over the years, his relationship with his subject has deepened, and he has looked into other themes--family history is one, place another--and even politics has crept into his work. And now Lynch has begun to write fiction.
Apparition & Late Fiction is a collection of four longish stories and a novella. The first story begins in a situation we can recognize from Lynch's work--"The thermos bottle with his father's ashes in it rested on the front seat of the drift boat." A fishing guide in northern Michigan prepares to scatter his father's ashes, although elemental concerns end up changing the easy solutions. The next
story has an undertaker as protagonist and movingly recapitulates subjects readers will recognize from Lynch's essays. The one after that follows a retired casket salesman who walks the trails around Mullett Lake while remembering a spiritual journey. And Lynch has a fascinating story modeled on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, where a vacationing U-M professor becomes obsessed about the beauty of a young employee of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. That story has an unfashionably slow-moving interior voice, reflecting on the nature of beauty and how it can dominate our lives until, at the end, "the heart bears its unspeakable cargo to lay it down at the feet of beauty."
Most of the last half of the book is devoted to Apparition, a novella about a wildly successful self-help writer whose own divorce provided the occasion for his book Good Riddance--Divorcing for Keeps. Despite the fame and fortune the book provides, Adrian Littlefield seems to have nurtured his own kind of obsession for the woman who left him, a woman he never should have married. He moves through the world looking for images of her in the moments of her infidelities. She becomes a ghost, an apparition he can never quite see or understand.
Thomas Lynch reads from his new book at Nicola's on Thursday, March 25.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]