We’ve all heard the longing: “If I’m going to write the book(s) I need to write, I need to quit my job and get to it.” Most of us never do it, but Ann Arborite Donald Lystra is living the dream. After a long and successful career as an engineer, he started writing. He found a writers’ circle to support him and offer direction. He began publishing his stories in the kinds of magazines U-M’s ambitious MFA students dream about appearing in. He published a lovely novel, Season of Water and Ice, with a small regional press, and it was picked as a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. He was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. And now he has published, Something That Feels like Truth, a collection of precise and deeply imagined short stories.
Lystra’s stories often take expected strategies and turn them on their fictional heads. For instance in, “Parallel Universe,” the classic American “road story” becomes a tale about an aging son who drives his ill mother from Michigan to Florida. The mother is on oxygen, and it’s running out! In “The Five O’clock Train” a couple in late middle age may have stayed together longer than the limits of love allow. They return to Paris to recapture the joy of their honeymoon, but an encounter with the place where Van Gogh died instead brings their tensions to a head, and perhaps to a kind of resolution. The beautiful thing about Lystra’s stories is that he never tells us if his characters find that resolution, yet the uncertainty feels right.
One of my favorites is the deceptively simple “Marseille.” That tough port city in the south of France doesn’t play much of a part in the story. It is just an interesting name that seems to provide an alternative to a man with an ordinary life that seems to be getting worse. The narrator works in a factory in Saginaw, until he loses his job. It’s a conversation those of us who live here can recognize: “Just before the first shift ended Sammy Niswick called me in and said that orders were way down. It was the state of the economy, he said, the goddamned economy. So they had to cut payroll. It was unfortunate but they had no choice.” That language is so simple that it feels absolutely direct, almost not written but recorded. And that is the pleasure of Lystra’s writing; it has an absolute clarity.
The narrator worries about telling his wife, and imagines how wonderful life must be in Marseille. He goes fishing, has coffee and cheesecake at the Empire Cafe with his wife and friends, and almost does something that might destroy his life. But he is called back to the ordinary–called back to love. Even though Lystra’s readers understand that might not be the end of the question, it is at least a temporary answer. In these remarkable short stories, the action comes without drama, the wisdom without sermon or lecture.
Donald Lystra reads at Nicola’s Books on October 15, at 7 p.m.