(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories of Michael Byers belong to the contemporary short-story tradition represented by Ethan Canin’s 1988 Emperor of the Air and Christopher Tilghman’s 1990 In a Father’s Place. Like Canin and Tilghman, Byers affirms, in a seemingly simple, matter-of-fact way, the solid, unsentimental values of family, commitment, and hope for the future. This is the kind of fiction that John Gardner urged in his book Moral Fiction (1978) and that Raymond Carver embodied in his 1983 collection Cathedral, hailed as mellower and more hopeful than his earlier, so-called minimalist stories.

Byers focuses primarily on men who, although certainly not simple, are simply trying hard to do their best. They are, like the retired schoolteacher in “Settled on the Cranberry Coast,” still looking hopefully to the future, or, when they do look to the past, are like the elderly couple in “Dirigibles,” reaffirmed rather than disappointed by where they have been. When Byers takes on the persona of a woman, as he does in “A Fair Trade,” the past is perceived without regret, the present is accepted with equanimity, and the future is looked forward to with hope. Even the self-absorbed father in “Shipmates Down Under,” who should take responsibility for his troubled marriage, and the young widower in “Spain, One Thousand and Three,” who has, for ego’s sake, treated women as conquests, ultimately are simply human with all the frailties to which humans are heir.

Such understanding, loving, and forgiving values are hard to resist, but they are also hard to present without either irony or sentimentality. Byers manages to avoid both, giving the reader characters who are neither perfect nor petulant, neither ironically bitter nor blissfully ignorant, but who are rather complex and believable human beings simply doing their best, which, Byers seems to suggest, is the most human thing anyone can do.

“Settled on the Cranberry Coast”

A satisfying story about second chances or the pleasant realization that it is never too late to live, “Settled on the Cranberry Coast” is narrated by Eddie, a bachelor who has just retired after teaching high school for twenty-seven years and has taken up part-time carpentry work. When Rosie, an old high school acquaintance who has also never married, hires him to repair an old house she has just bought, the story focuses quite comfortably on their inevitable gravitation toward each other. Rosie fills Eddie’s need for a caring companion, while her six-year-old granddaughter Hannah, who lives with her, gives him the child he has never had.

As Eddie makes Rosie’s house sturdier, their relationship grows as well, gradually affirming Eddie’s opening sentence in the story: “This I know; our lives in these towns are slowly improving.” Eddie can imagine moving in with Rosie and Hannah, thinking that we do not live our lives so much as come to them, as people and things “collect mysteriously” around us. At the end of the story, Eddie invites Hannah to go to the next town with him to buy radiators. In a simple scene handled perceptively and delicately by Byers, Eddie stands under a parking lot overhang in the rain, smoothing the sleeping child’s hair, her head “perfectly round” on his shoulder. In a Carveresque final sentence, he thinks he is “on the verge of something” as he waits there, listening to Hannah’s easy, settled breathing.


Because Byers was only in his twenties when he wrote these stories, reviewers have made much of his understanding of older characters, such as Eddie in “Settled on the Cranberry Coast.” In “Dirigibles,” Howard and Louise, in their late sixties and retired, are visited by James Couch, a friend from the old days, who is stopping on his way from Seattle to Montana. Couch talks about his daughter hang gliding in outer space, and Howard realizes that Couch has “gone a little way around the bend, and he...

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