[21 October 2013]
Historical fiction isn’t a common genre for short fiction, at least not contemporary literary American short fiction. Short stories are usually concerned with the individual moment, delineating subtle shifts in a character’s consciousness, often conveyed through the subtlest of gestures—a dinner table revelation, a strained conversation, a thought left unspoken. Sometimes there’s a camping trip, or day at the beach, or someone plants a tree. The biggest nod toward history attempted by most fiction writers comes in the form of a reminiscence set in during the past lifetime of a character (and by implication, of the author). Remembering the 1960s or ‘70s might be expected, but the 1860s or ‘70s? Forget it.
Conventional wisdom holds that short fiction is too confined, too, well, short, to contain all the necessary detail involved in world-building or referencing historical epochs other than our own. Hell, most historical novels run for hundreds of pages, largely spent in evoking that lost era, whatever it might be.
Apparently Ben Stroud never got the memo. He not only rejects this conventional wisdom, he chews it up, tears it to pieces, and stomps on it with both feet. Byzantium is a collection of short stories that gleefully veers through time and space, from the titular 7th century empire to 19th century settings ranging from the fields and alleys of Havana to the docks of Texas to a religious community carved out of the wilds of northern Michigan. Sure, there are some contemporary stories too—after all, we’re living in a historical era just like everyone else. But Stroud’s refusal to be limited to the here and now is hugely refreshing.
It also helps that he’s such a fine writer. Economical and precise, his stories move along at a terrific clip, never getting bogged down in unnecessary detail, historical or otherwise. “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” tells the unlikely story of the inventor of “meat biscuits” (which sound revolting), thousands of which he sells to one Colonel Timson for his invasion of Honduras—apparently a fictionalized reference to William Walker’s real-life invasion of Nicaragua.
When not trying to feed America’s private expansionist armies, Borden works on his other inventions, such as a personal refrigeration unit meant to freeze human beings alive during tuberculosis season, so that they can be thawed out when the danger has passed. Borden’s blissful ignorance is matched by his devotion both to his work and his deceased wife, rendering a compelling character out of what could have just been a caricature.
In “The Don’s Cinnamon”, Stroud tells the story of Burke, a self-taught Negro private detective living in Havana in the 1800s. When a series of slaves goes missing, Burke is hired to track them down and return them to his owners. The moral repugnance he feels at this commission is present throughout the story, but Stroud finds a clever, if horrifying, way to resolve it. Stroud doesn’t shy away from the big issues that his historical milieus inevitably raise; issues of race, class, gender and nationalism permeate these tales, and no one gets away scot-free.
Stroud’s protagonists are by and large male, but the times when a woman takes center stage are nicely delineated, as well. “At Boquillas” tells an understated story of a couple vacationing along the Texas-Mexico border during their fifth year of marriage. Just a few pages long, the story manages to fill in enough incident and background to render the woman’s epiphany believable and satisfying. For what it’s worth, this is perhaps the most “conventional” story in he book; the fact that Stroud is so successful with it is just another feather in his cap.
Throughout, the writing is clear and purposeful. As Burke struggles with his misgivings as a slave hunter in “The Don’s Cinnamon”, he watches the city streets, “sitting once more in the don’s high-wheeled carriage, his observations pressed against the front of his mind to stanch any seepings of guilt”. The title story of “Byzanium” begins with the simple but arresting line: “I was born a disappointment.” It’s unlikely that the reader will agree.
The collection’s final story, “The Moor”, deserves mention for its unconventional structure. Reading something like a an extended newspaper account or police record, Stroud dispenses with narrative convention and simply conveys a great deal of information in a series of dispassionate reports. It won’t be to everyone’s taste—I’m not even sure it’s to mine—but it’s engaging enough, and one more indication that this is not a writer content to simply approach material the same way that everyone else would.
This is a terrific book from start to finish. Readers who have grown cynical of short stories—or just bored with them—should take a look. It’s fun to speculate what Stroud will do next, with a historical novel being the obvious guess, but if this collection suggests anything, it should be that this is a writer of restless intellect and unpredictable interests. Wherever he chooses to go, though, it should be a fun ride.