The sweep of these 10 short stories in “Byzantium” covers a time span of 2,000 years, from the Greek empire to modern-day East Texas, from Havana in the mid-1800s to an early utopian community on an island in Lake Michigan, from Berlin more than 100 years ago to a canyon on the Rio Grande.
Most of the stories are written in the first person. The characters include the disappointing son of the Byzantine emperor’s favorite general, an inventor of “meat biscuits” during the Franklin Pierce administration and a young American man temporarily teaching college in modern Berlin. The focus is on the desire of the main characters to improve their situations, to change their lives.
Some are admirable people with admirable goals; others are unlikable people who think only of themselves. But they’re all seeking something better, whether or not their goal is a sensible one. In “Byzantium,” a general’s son seeks relief from a mangled hand (a “chewed red crook”). While the narrator of “East Texas Lumber” delivers shingles, he obsesses about gaining the affections of the cute girl at the church teen center. In “Toyopa,” a former inspector of mines leads a group pursuing an abandoned silver mine in the Mexican desert. The results range from success to uncertainty to disaster.
In some stories, the plot is a quest. In others, the main character’s decision to seek change is clarified only in the final sentences: “In the aisle a Turk or Romany, accordion folded shut and slung over his shoulder, shook his knitted change purse. I closed my eyes and listened as the bridge clacked beneath us. I felt Clara’s words, Amy’s silence, wounds beneath my skin. But the winter sun shone on my face and I said to myself: ‘I am blameless.’ I said: ‘I owe no one.’ I said: ‘Surely something better has been promised me.’” The narrator decides to turn his back on both women, and the author’s well-chosen prose has uncovered his true, self-centered nature.
“The Traitor of Zion” is a particularly evocative story of a seeker in the early 1800s for whom things don’t go as planned. After only a few days’ consideration, he moves across the country to a religious community, which has set up its own utopia on an island in Lake Michigan. To all appearances the commune runs smoothly, but, as the narrator pursues a young woman’s affections, he realizes that the group’s leader has not lived up to his own commandments.
At the same time, friction increases between the utopians and rough-hewn whisky traders who travel through the region. As the protagonist grieves his inability to marry his beloved, events unfold in a way he never could have predicted.
Most of the stories have detailed plots, at least for short stories. “Eraser,” on the other hand, centers on the musings of an eighth-grader fishing with his mother and stepfather on a lake in Texas. The narrator thinks about his teachers, his nemesis at school, how much he hates fishing and how much he dislikes his stepfather: “[E]ven though he took us camping and fishing and paid for us to take horse rides, none of it stuck. My stepfather must have been surprised when he got me. All along he must have wanted a son to teach all this crap to, and there I was — a chubby kid who’d rather watch The Price Is Right while downing a bag of Cheetos than gut an animal. I can’t say I blame him for being disappointed.” As the story ends, the young man sets out to make his parents sorry for how they treat him.
“Byzantium” is impressive, particularly considering it is the author’s first book. This collection won the 2012 Katherine Bakeless Nelson Literary Prize for fiction, and the prize included publication by a nonprofit press. Many of the stories have appeared before in “Harpers,” “Literary Review” and other purveyors of literary fiction.
In his foreword, Randall Kenan, the judge who selected the prize winner, states “let us … praise the full-blooded sweep and majesty of Stroud’s imagination. Let us celebrate a writer of great bravery and artistry and deep feeling.” Kenan goes on to say that some people believe short stories are best when they’re small, when they stay away from great, grand events. “Clearly, Ben Stroud did not get this misleading e-mail,” Kenan writes, adding, “I do believe the world of prose fiction is all the richer for it.”
Part of the book’s appeal is that no two stories in this volume are comparable in their main character, plot, setting or tone. The author’s imagination is a real strength.