Great Summer Reading: Thomas Lynch’s ‘Apparition’

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

We’ve all received a huge gift from the poet and essayist Thomas Lynch for our collective Great Summer Reading series: a handy little volume called “Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories.” In one word, the spiritual core of this book is: wonderment.

Past all the tragedies, death, passion, dreams, strange big dogs, loving attention to the natural world and even the many playful riffs on the English language that flow from Tom’s pen—this book really is about the raw and embarrassing and absolutely glorious awe that lies at the core of our lives. Or, we should say: the awe that’s there, if we peel back our protective covers as this collection of stories invites us to dare.

Exploring Sex and Death in an “honest and specific way”

If you’re not familiar with Thomas Lynch’s work, his first short stories may puzzle you with their attention to passion and the end of life. That’s not because these themes are rare—obviously, they’re everywhere—but because Tom writes about them in such a distinctively honest and specific way.

He’s a master. You may think of Tom as a politely respected writer in our country (the dust cover reminds us of that fact), but you may not know that he is lionized in the UK, where he now lives for part of each year in his family’s native Irish village. As Tom likes to say, the Irish and British have always treated their poets better than the Americans. On our side of the Atlantic, Tom is known mainly for his rather eccentric background: a lifelong undertaker from tiny Milford, Michigan, who wrote a book about his “Dismal Trade” that ranked as a finalist for the National Book Award and turned into a full-scale PBS documentary. So, if you only know Thomas Lynch as a quirky writer with an odd background—it’s time to wake up and enjoy this litearary tour de force. He demonstrates in these 216 pages how far he can move us through fiction.

If nothing else, he is a disciple of William Butler Yeats, who is quoted in this new collection of stories as famously declaring: “Sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” (As if we need to be reminded, Tom! You must have been chuckling as you dropped that bit of Yeats into these pages.)

Like Yeats, Lynch is a wondrous artist who layers his narratives—always giving us a big, wide, entertaining pathway into each story that rewards us with stirring experiences at every turn. But, there is so much more here: Other paths nestled among these words lead toward richer layers.

For example, the opening poem with this review, above, wasn’t written by Lynch. It’s the verse etched into the gravesite of writer Raymond Carver, the infamous American storyteller who, when he wasn’t drinking himself to death, also followed Yeats’ literary advice in terms of his subject matter. As I finally closed Tom’s new collection of stories, nodding in satisfaction at such a marvelous adventure with these fictional friends, my own brief prayer of gratitude was for Thomas Lynch, Raymond Carver and all the other writers who fearlessly grab hold of the timeless spiritual energy identified by greats like Yeats—and translate that into the real stuff of contemporary American life. (Did you note Tom’s subtitle about “Late Fictions”? Tom, you must be smiling over Carver’s graveside “Late Fragment.”)

Moving “Death in Venice” to Death in Michigan

Literary adventures depart from almost every scene within this new collection. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but one of the grandest tales is a 58-page mini-novella called “Matinee de Septembre.”

Many readers will quickly realize that this is Thomas Lynch—at the top of his game as a contemporary master of sex and death—daring to update Thomas Mann’s 1912 “Death in Venice.” In one chess move after another, Lynch stalks Mann’s masterpiece. Grabbing “Venice” squarely in both hands, Lynch moves his own tale a full century forward from Mann’s world. The setting moves from northern Italy to northern Michigan. The Grand Hotel des Bains, a real landmark in Venice where Mann had stayed, becomes the Grand Hotel of Mackinac Island, also a real landmark frequented by the author. Mann’s famous-but-aging author Ashenbach becomes the famous-but-aging author Aisling—although the gender shifts here from an anxious man to an anxious woman. The object of desire shifts, too, but I won’t spoil where this painfully appealing arrow lands. What makes Lynch’s journey a true adventure? What lifts it from a literary conceit to a real, live, unexpectedly twisting and turning story that we want to enjoy afresh? Well, one thing is that Tom blows away the claustrophobic tragedy of Mann’s Venice to create something strikingly different on Mackinac Island. No, I won’t spoil how he does that.

In the end, all I can say is: You’ll travel along shorelines, through deep woods and into even deeper bedrooms with a master—so don’t hesitate. Take this trip!

Care to Enjoy Thomas Lynch’s Works?

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