Houghton Mifflin Company (1998)
ISBN: 0-395-89170-1
Michael Byers’ stunning debut collection, The Coast of Good Intentions, is alarmingly picturesque, flirting at times with the Carveresque. But Mr. Byers work transforms the bleak into endearing possibility; short sentences blossom into flowing, metaphorical language that takes the reader to the Pacific Northwest, a territory Carver did not leave unexplored.
         Mr. Byers’ compassion for his characters—young, middle-aged and old—renders them attractive; generosity is apparent throughout, saturating the collection with heartwarming appeal. The protagonists are geneticists, teachers, video game consultants, computer programmers, assistant directors, students, ferry workers, retirees. With or without close friendships and/or marriage, many are alone. The solitary life plays a big part in this work. And although all the stories take place in the Pacific Northwest, each setting is distinct, be it in Seattle, a cranberry bog, a kite festival, a hospital, or an A-frame high up in on a mountain overlooking Roslyn. For Mr. Byers, the range of possibilities seems to be endless.
         "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," the first story of the collection, demonstrates a retired teacher’s new-found love for an old high school crush, Rosie, and his growing affection for her six-year-old granddaughter, Hannah. "Shipmates Down Under," which is anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of 1997, renders the dynamics between Alvin, a geneticist, and his family as they anticipate a trip to Alvin’s homeland in Australia. The relationship between Alvin and his son, Ted, is charming and dear, and the hardships and hope between Alvin and his wife, Harriet, are painstakingly real as she attempts to provide a balance between her career and family. In "In Spain, One Thousand and Three," Martin Tuttleman grieves over his deceased wife, Evelyn, struggles with his sexual urges, which seem to dominate him, and shamefully recalls his past sexual excursions. "A Fair Trade" follows the life of from two months after the death of her father, who was killed in the Pacific during WWII when she was 14, to nearly four decades later through success and failure in both her personal and professional lives. Andie’s love-hate relationship with her aunt, Maggie, is quietly and carefully portrayed, and one can see faint hope in Andie’s aloneness, which she earnestly cherishes. Reflecting on her life in adulthood, "It turned out to be a life she loved. She became, and she knew it, self-regarding. She would rather imagine people than be with them, but she was fairly sure this had always been true … it seemed to her she had always been a solitary girl."
         In "Blue River, Blue Sun," Joseph mourns his divorce, while his ex-wife, May, finds a new lover, a psychologist who works in the same office as she. Joseph moves into his dead father’s empty home, "telling himself he was killing two birds with one stone." Paula Hubberton, his department secretary, who is experiencing divorce as her husband, Rick, is having an affair, approaches Joseph at work. They plan a date and ride out to the river, where they lose their inhibitions, sensing hope in their futures instead of mourning for their pasts. "In the Kingdom of Prester John" is an interesting look into Tom’s life. His uncle, Ron, disappears into craziness and Tom wonders about his own state of mind, as this trait of mental instability has been passed down from former generations. In "Dirigibles," after a visit by a former fellow ferry worker, Howard and Louise seem happier somehow, content in their retired lives, despite Louise’s multiple sclerosis.
         All of these stories are marvelous and tender. The writing is beautiful and at times alarming. The Coast of Good Intentions’ metaphors and imagery provide rich landscapes into which one is repeatedly absorbed. As Charles Baxter states, "Byers’s stories are wise, beautiful, and necessary." This is powerful. The Coast of Good Intentions is a gorgeous, fascinating debut from a consistently talented author.