Archived Reading Room

Brooding obsessions

Dying Light by Donald Hays. MacAdam/Cage, 2006. 261 pages

In recent years, I’m sure that the average reader feels intimidated by the steady onslaught of new publications that flow into the bookstores each day. (I also hear that all of this excess may cease soon as publishing houses close.) Given the sheer mass of novels, plays, poetry collections and biographies that appear each week, I am often eager for guidance. One of my favorite ploys is to ask a reader whose judgment I respect, “What are you reading these days?”

For a couple of years now, I have been asking my favorite writer, Ron Rash, and he always takes the time to give me a few titles. “Read Out Stealing Horses,” he tells me. I do and I love it. “Read Dirt Music,” he adds. “Read everything that Donald Harrington has written. Read William Gay and Cormac McCarthy.” About a month ago, he said, “Read Dying Light.” In my opinion, Ron never misses, and this time, he exceeded all expectations.

Dying Light is a collection of 10 short stories that are so beautifully crafted, I found myself deeply affected by the author’s skill. Each time, as the story concludes, the various components slide together effortlessly like the interlocking pieces of a musical instrument, a fiddle or a dulcimer. However, these stories are harsh and uncompromising in their insight. Each tale, even the comical “Private Dance,” deals with the consequences of bad decisions — lives wrecked by human frailty, obsession and betrayal.

“The Rites of Love” chronicles a passion that refuses to die — even when a football injury reduces Monty Shepherd to an invalid and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth, marries another and has a son. The two thwarted lovers still strive to re-create their single night together. As the years pass and Monty’s health deteriorates, their bond intensifies. (The conclusion of this story is a stunner!)

In “Akerman in Eden,” a mentally unstable poet finds himself vacillating between two worlds: a motel room in Oklahoma and the sacred temple of Ophir near the river Euphrates. In the real world (the motel room), he is at the mercy of strangers who have stolen his credit cards, but without his medication, Akerman yearns to join an exotic caravan that is moving toward Eden. Akerman’s dilemma suggests that sometimes madness is preferable to reality.

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Angler, the distraught protagonist of “Salvage” finds himself sitting in a hospital room with his dying wife while he yearns for a lost love — Sara, who rejected him 58 years ago. He feels compelled to leave his grieving family and drive to Sara’s home. He feels attempts to confront his lost love — now a widow with impaired hearing who lives in a junkyard. Like many of Hays’ characters, Angler is about to experience the consequences of obsession.

“Why He Did It” deals with Wilder, a doting father who takes desperate steps to assure his son’s future. Realizing that the daughter of the woman he has married has fallen in love with his son, Justin (thereby posing a threat to Justin’s college career), Wilder devises a plan that will assure his son’s future. It works, but it has unforeseen and tragic results.

Three of the stories in this collection, “Redemption,” “Material” and “Dying Light” deal with commonplace domestic dramas: abandonment, deceit and the belated (but sincere) need for forgiveness.

Frank Wheeler cannot forgive his father for abandoning his mother and broods about it continually. When the penitent father returns (with a young wife) eager to make amends, Frank (much like Wilder in “Why He Did It”) devises a scheme to render justice and protect the innocent. It works, but it places the vindictive son forever beyond the pale of redemption.

When Harper, the elderly creative writing instructor, is caught in an affair with Erin, one of his students, he confesses his adultery and assumes responsibility for the tragic consequences. However, after his wife divorces him, and Erin moves to Paris and becomes a successful writer (who has written a series of sensational stories based on her affair with Harper), he realizes that he has been “material” for Erin’s novel. Erin has heeded his quote from Henry James, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.”

This collection’s title, Dying Light, comes from Hays’ final short story which, despite the somber setting, qualifies as a tale that acquires a kind of redemptive beauty. Bud McMahon is dying, and as the cancer spreads in his throat he bargains with the radiologists for two more months of life. In that interim, he starts smoking again, and is reunited with his son (an artist who paints his father’s portrait). As the dying Bud sits watching the sunset, he thinks, “Still, the sun — an old glory of dying light. It is beautiful. It is almost enough.”

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