High and Low, Smart and Subtle:
Ben Stroud's Byzantium
Noir, literary, historical: Stroud’s work can be called all of these things, yet he is the rare short story writer for whom labels feel imprecise. The swervy narrative moves in Byzantium don’t adhere to genres so much as they dissolve them. “The Moor” begins: “The earliest record we have of the black detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke—the Moor—is an advertisement he ran in several Berlin newspapers in 1873, promising discretion and modest fees.” What follows is a plural-we attempt to understand the detective’s life and motives. The story takes tired complaints about historical fiction—but we already know all the details of what happened!—and fashions them as subheadings: The Moor’s Origins, His Appearance, His Nemesis, His Greatest Cause, The Attempts on His Life, The Schott Affair, The Final Mystery, etc. “Where does history exist?” asks the closing paragraph. I reread it immediately.
Ben Stroud. The swervy narrative moves in Byzantium don’t adhere to genres so much as they dissolve them.
I did the same with “East Texas Lumber,” one of the best stories I have read this year. A tornado has ripped through East Texas. Brian’s task for the day is a “shingle drop for two tornado houses.” This could be a story about rebuilding both yourself and your community in the wake of disaster (in the film adaptation, I’m sure a studio executive will ask if they can fudge it so that Brian can fly or, at the very least, wear a cape), but instead, it is plotted out as a story about being single and screwing up shingle orders. Tragedy offers up vulnerable women and Brian can never quite manage the conversation. His first-person narration is intelligent and nervy, yet Stroud doesn’t overdo it. Whenever I see a “high” word and a “low” word in close quarters (from a magazine stand: “soporific crud,” “uxurious hubby”) I can’t help but feel that a writer (often myself) is showing you the score of their IQ test then quickly yanking it away to show off a tattoo or an especially blue collar or some indication of populist street cred (“populist cred” is itself a pretty good example). Stroud shows character range without being spastic about it. His lines are smart and subtle:
“Then I said, ‘I haven’t talked to you in forever’ though it’d only been since last Friday, and she said, well, yeah, that sucked, and now she was headed back to Nacogdoches in two days for summer school. The news cinched around my cerebellum so tight I couldn’t even twitch.”
“Sucked” is a bit low, “cerebellum” a smidge high. The string of alliteration—sucked, summer school, cinched, cerebellum—is brought to a harsh stop with “twitch.” The two sentences are aurally pleasing, reveal character range, and are just plain-old sad, an emotion which Stroud makes both fresh and physical: “The little hopes I’d been tending popped and crumpled beneath my skin.” Sentences like these deserve our attention, and at the risk of applying a thesis, Stroud’s collection as a whole deserves praise for proving out a core tenet of good fiction, genre be damned: that the flaring and fizzling of little hopes is an experience bound by no single era, person, or place.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.