Traditionally, short stories are birthed out of what-ifs.
What if you go to Mars and find dead relatives? What if a sea monster confuses a fog horn with a mating call? Both of those examples, by the way, are from master short story writer Ray Bradbury.
In Donald Lystra’s latest story collection “Something that Feels Like Truth,” he does something very different from Bradbury. In many ways, his Michigan short stories are not what-ifs but episodes. They are brief glimpses into the lives of real people, and each is at a turning point or a moment of self-realization. These are character studies focused more on the emotional impact of a moment than on a surprising plot twist.
While most of these stories are based in Michigan or filled with Michigan-like characters, the funny thing is my favorite story doesn’t even take place in our state but instead in France. The story “The Five O’Clock Train” follows a struggling married couple vacationing. She is artistic, he is more analytical and tolerates what he considers her romantic view of the world. Their relationship comes to a head while visiting the last resting place of Vincent Van Gogh.
Lystra's stories are each very well written and captivating. There are no sea creatures, but normal people with normal problems. And while there are no ghosts either, each of his characters is are haunted by choices that they’ve made in their pasts and the choices they will make before their story comes to an end.
The only complaint I have would make with this fascinating collection of short stories is they can feel kind of redundant at times. Most of the stories involve men in the later end of middle age, you never get the female perspective really, and everyone's relationship is usually on the brink of disaster or just afterwards. There are also themes of lost youth and approaching demise that seems to run throughout. These are not stories about beginnings, but endings. Rather bleak when put all together in one book.
“Something that Feels like Truth” is a 2014 Michigan Notable Book selection, and it definitely deserves it. The writing is first rate. Lystra was once an engineer and you can almost feel that necessary precision in his writing. While the prose won’t sweep you away with its beauty, there is an exactness that emphasizes the truth in his words. This is a wonderful collection, but a part of me wishes it included at least one monster.
A monster in Lystra’s world would’ve been a fun what-if.
Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels “A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.