on Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories by Thomas Lynch (W.W. Norton)

After The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade was nominated for a National Book Award in 1997, Thomas Lynch became the most famous funeral director in America. PBS went on to produce an episode of “Frontline” about him. When my father-in-law died in 2001, I gave a copy of the book to our hospice nurse, but she was already familiar with it. “They make everyone at the agency read it,” she said.

LynchHat.jpgLynch’s effortless and companionable essays are dual “observances” – attentive to life and memory, but also, part of the rites performed by the community functionary, the witness at one remove. The voice is modest but authoritative: “Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople,” he writes in the opening piece. “Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned. I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes. I have a sideline in headstones and monuments. I do flowers on commission.”

But before The Undertaking, Lynch published Skating With Heather Grace (Knopf, 1986), the first of his three books of poems. I regard it as a contemporary classic. He told his interviewer at Willow Springs, “I write sonnets and I embalm, and I’m happy to take questions on any subject in between those two.”

The intelligent and compassionate presence of his essays’ and poems’ speaker is itself a metaphor for the habitual shape and sound of heightened but calm attention. (At the end of this review you’ll find his poem “For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of Her Birthday.”) Lynch’s stable voice is a deeply affecting invention, speaking from the gap between the silent competence of an embalmer and the highly emotional sensibility of a father, son, husband and friend.

LynchCo.jpgNow Lynch’s fiction appears in Apparition & Late Fictions, a collection of four stories and a novella, each set in Michigan where Lynch lives and works. Triggering the action, the looming facts of death, especially in the stories, are eventually balanced by compensating contemplation. In “Bloodsport,” Martin, the local undertake, recalls the death of a young woman, Elena, shot and killed by her husband 20 years ago as she packed her car to leave him for good. Martin had buried Elena’s father when she was a teenager, and now he remembers transporting her body from the coroner to the funeral home, and then preparing the corpse for burial.

“Taken as a thing itself, considered within the broad range of human conduct, undistracted by his professional duties, Martin regarded the aberration of the dead girl’s body riding behind him as utterly incomprehensible. How could someone kill someone so coldly, someone with whom you had made plans, had sex, watched television, promised love? It left him with a functional ambiguity … Duty had a way of separating Martin from what it was he was doing. Stuffing the opened cranium with cotton, fitting the skullcap back in place and easing the scalp back over the skull … and embalming was only part of the process of laying out the dead, which was only part of the process of the funeral, and the funeral was only part of the larger concept of a death in the family, and a death in the family was a more manageable prospect, more generic, somehow, than the horror – round and witless and recognizable and well beyond his professional abilities – of a lovely girl, grown lovelier as a woman, who leaned on him and counted on him …”

LynchToon.jpgInside Lynch’s prose is a mute, harnessed panic – and the surprise of continuing to live in its aftermath. In “Catch and Release,” a man takes his father’s ashes out on a river where they had often fished. In “Hunter’s Moon,” Harold Keehn, a retired casket salesman, thrice married, takes a walk through the woods near his lakeside house. In both of these stories, the main character arrives at an adequate, considered reconciliation with circumstance – not because Lynch wants to indicate the best approach to failure, regret and the comings-apart of experience, but because the emerging language of his stories gives shape to his own undeniable experience. In these stories, events, people, nature and memory are all worthy of a person’s consideration and worry – but everything yields to a sense of some larger, immutable quality.

In “Matinée de Septembre,” Lynch shifts gears. The main character is 40-year old Aisling Black, daughter of a successful Detroit windshield manufacturer, a professor at Ann Arbor, a poet (two books), and the widow of the great poet Nigel. Her memoir of their life together was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, and “much as she tried to avoid the role of poetry’s heartsore young widow, there was no doubt that her years with Nigel, her well-documented bereavements, and her relative youth and beauty made her something of an item on the literary circuit.” On her return flight from Europe, the new semester shortly to start, she decides to spend a few days at a grand hotel on Mackinac Island between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. With great subtlety, Lynch brings a whole life to bear on Aisling: “The night was fitful and she woke full of longing – though she could not say exactly for what.” The focus of her undefined desire is Bintalou, a young Jamaican woman working at the hotel as a waitress:

“Her growing fantasies in which Bintalou figured so prominently owed, she reasoned, to a confluence of longings – for a child, for a lover, for a life of passion and meaning beyond the meager rehearsals of her own. The stunning young Jamaican, Aisling further reckoned, was the embodiment of all that she’d pursued as an artist and scholar – a beauty beyond the idea of beauty, rather the living, breathing incarnation of beauty itself. This prospect rather frightened and excited her.” But in Lynch’s fictive world, his interest is mainly in solitary sufficiencies. He literally leads Aisling out on a limb, clumsily alone and but perhaps safe and alive with self-awareness after all, to end the story.

Finally, there’s the novella “Apparition,” a story about Adrian, a minister, abandoned by his wife to bring up two children, who experiences renewal to become the nation’s authority on the unsuspected positive outcomes of divorce. Adrian now runs “The Center for Post-Marital Studies – an elaborate tax shelter, along with the foundation that raised funds to advance the work of CPMS, which was primarily to pay its principal apostle – himself – to spread the word such as it was revealed to him.” Once again, Lynch gives us an individual who looks back without bitterness to find adequacy in the present – with the help of a candid, exuberant Irish priest with whiskey and apt profanity on his breath. None of Lynch’s major characters enacts a deep attachment for another in the present – yet profound affection for life as it is permeates the fiction.

In Thomas Lynch’s world, the density of life brought to bear during the moments of “laying out the dead” is almost too much too bear. In a sense, Lynch lays out his fictional main characters for display, only to arrange their risings back into life. In “All Hallow’s Eve” in The Undertaking Lynch wrote:

LynchRectan.jpg“Walking upright between the past and future, a tightrope walk across our timers, became, for me, a way of living” trying to maintain a balance between the competing gravities of both and death, hope and regret, sex and mortality, love and grief, all those opposites or nearly opposites that become, after a while, the rocks and hard places, synonymous forces between while we navigate, like salmon balanced in the current, damned some times if we do or don’t.”

In Apparition & Late Fictions, Lynch converts a lifetime of such experience into prose fictions that resonate with hard-earned, unblinkered insights.

[Published February 8, 2010. 216 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

FOR THE EX-WIFE ON THE OCCASION OF HER BIRTHDAY

Let me say outright that I bear you no
unusual malice anymore. Nor
do I wish for you tumors or loose stools,
blood in your urine, oozings from any orifice.
The list is endless of those ills I do not pray befall you:
night sweats, occasional itching, PMS,
fits, starts, ticks, boils, bad vibes, vaginal odors,
emotional upheavals or hormonal disorders;
green discharges, lumps, growths, nor tell-tale signs of gray;
dry heaves, hiccups, heartbreaks, fallen ovaries
nor cramps—before, during, or after. I pray you only
laughter in the face of your mortality
and freedom from the ravages of middle age:
bummers, boredom, cellulite, toxic shock and pregnancies;
migraines, glandular problems, the growth of facial hair,
sagging breasts, bladder infections, menopausal rage,
flatulence or overdoses, hot flashes or constant nausea,
uterine collapse or loss of life or limb or faith
in the face of what might seem considerable debilities.
Think of your life not as half-spent but as half-full
of possibilities. The Arts maybe, or
Music, Modern Dance, or Hard Rock Videos.
Whatever, this is to say I hereby recant
all former bitterness and proffer only all the best
in the way of Happy Birthday wishes.
I no longer want your mother committed,
your friends banished, your donkey lovers taken out and shot
or spayed or dragged behind some Chevrolet of doom.
I pray you find that space or room or whatever it is
you and your shrink have always claimed you’d need
to spread your wings and realize your insuperable potential.
Godspeed is what I say, and good credentials:
what with your background in fashions and aerobics,
you’d make a fairly bouncy brain surgeon
or well-dressed astronaut or disc jockey.
The children and I will be watching with interest
and wouldn’t mind a note from time to time
to say you’ve overcome all obstacles this time;
overcome your own half-hearted upbringing,
a skimpy wardrobe, your lowly self-esteem,
the oppression of women and dismal horoscopes;
overcome an overly dependent personality,
stretch marks, self-doubt, a bad appendix scar,
the best years of your life misspent on wifing and mothering.
So let us know exactly how you are once
you have triumphed, after all. Poised and ready
on the brink of, shall we say, your middle years,
send word when you have gained by the luck of the draw,
the kindness of strangers, or by dint of will itself
if not great fame then self-sufficiency.
Really, now that I’ve my hard-won riddance of you
signed and sealed and cooling on the books against
your banks and creditors; now that I no
longer need endure your whining discontent,
your daylong, nightlong carping over lost youth,
bum luck, spilt milk, what you might have been,
or pining not so quietly for a new life in
New York with new men; now that I have been
more or less officially relieved of
all those hapless duties husbanding
a woman of your disenchantments came to be,
I bid you No Deposits, No Returns,
but otherwise a very Happy Birthday.
And while this mayn’t sound exactly like good will
in some important ways it could be worse.
The ancients in my family had a way with words
and overzealous habits of revenge
whereby the likes of you were turned to birds
and made to nest among the mounds of dung
that rose up in the wake of cattle herds
grazing their way across those bygone parishes
where all that ever came with age was wisdom.

Thomas Lynch's Writings

Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking is one of the great books of essays and memoir of the past 25 years. I had no idea he writes fiction and I'm truly excited about acquiring a copy of this new book Apparition. Do you know if he plans to be on the radio or to tour around the country to promote the book? Finally, I just want to say thank you for all your reviews. I am now reading poetry for the first time in a long while, including the ones by Joel Brouwer and Kara Candito you wrote about.

Thomas Lynch

Thanks, Ron, for this timely reminder about Lynch's body of work. I discovered him some years back and have been quietly enthralled with his work ever since.

Lynch on PBS

Ron, the PBS show on Lynch is wonderful and I recommend it to all. The program also makes one of your points because once you hear Lynch speak as a funeral director, and if you read his prose, then you can really understand how his essays and his stories project the "invented" voice you describe. Thanks also for not letting us forget that Lynch's Skating with Heather Grace is such a great collection of poems. It's a shame that this book isn't in print.

On Lynch

“I write sonnets and I embalm, and I’m happy to take questions on any subject in between those two.”
This is a magnificent and tender line. I remember reading some Lynch years ago (maybe it was in Harper's?) and I was taken by his fluidity -- that is, the perfect ease with which he showed his duty to the natural scheme. A form of celebration. His poetry (well, the Ex-Wife's Birthday poem you so kindly reprinted) also looks terrific, like it's only sleeping. Very life-like. I look forward to reading much more of his work. Thank you.