Michael Byers grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and the stories in The Coast of Good Intentions
evoke that region's cloudy and caffeinated landscape with impressive ease. He gives each location the particularity of a fingerprint: "The alders were in full leaf," Byers writes in a typical bit of Sensurround prose, "and the cranberry bog was a deep russet now in the middle of the summer. Down at the end of the road another little house sat, abandoned, its door gaping open as if to breathe, a tree growing through the windows. Somewhere we could hear a tractor. The ocean was a mile away, across the highway, invisible, but I could smell it, the salty air." Yet the author never indulges in merely bucolic scene-painting. Instead, he explores how the landscape shapes his characters, who seem alternately depressed and comforted by the perpetual sight of thunderheads "piling themselves against the Olympics, like gray balloons against a ceiling." What's more, Byers has a wonderful touch when it come to rendering the middle ground of happiness. In stories like "Shipmates Down Under" and "In Spain, One Thousand and Three," his protagonists seem to stagger under their allotments of disappointment--and remain surprisingly and persuasively alive to possibility. This would be a impressive debut for a late-blooming, middle-aged master. Coming from a 28-year-old, it's an astonishing performance, which makes the word precocious
sound limp and irrelevant.
In the first sentence of the first story of this astonishing debut collection, Byers asserts, almost as a statement of faith, that our lives are slowly improving. The stories--set in the Pacific Northwest and dealing with men and women, young and old, in a variety of occupations and circumstances--mostly bear out that assertion. Of course, the damaged lives that Byers describes have plenty of room for improvement. A programmer of computer games cannot escape the maze of his own debilitating emotions following the death of his wife. A geology teacher can't let loose of the wife who deserted him. A young girl, abandoned by her mother, won't even try to connect with her new acquaintances. Yet all of these people progress slowly, haltingly, through small but authentic epiphanies, toward better lives, or at least toward an appreciation and acceptance of the lives they have. These powerfully affecting stories are wise and true, and they should not be missed. Dennis Dodge