Michael Byers's award-winning collection The Coast of Good Intentions tells graceful tales of achingly unresolved lives on the Pacific Northwest coast. Byers captures the lives of ferry workers, carpenters, park rangers, and adolescents leaving home, against a backdrop of crab factories, cranberry bogs, the fog-shrouded shore, and the Seattle skyline. A poignant debut collection, these stories are "richly peopled with compelling characters whose wisdom and experiences span the generations" (San Jose Mercury News).
Each of these stories reads like a novel - there's no attempt at post-modern techniques or any sort of artsy short-story trickery. There's plenty of subtext in each story, but there's also enough on the surface that you won't have to scratch your head after finishing a piece and ask, "What the heck was that about?" Each piece simply delivers solid story-telling, good characters, an interesting premise that gives us a chance to see how they act under pressure, and effective clean writing that lets the story unfold on its own. The final three stories have a clever thematic link about the power and impact of illusions.
The rain, mountains, and connections to the ocean in coastal towns provide a consistent visual setting for the pieces, all of which are set in the Pacific Northwest.
The 8 stories in the collection are:
1. Settled on the Cranberry Coast - 15 pp - A retired schoolteacher begins to work as a carpenter and is reunited with his high school crush when she hires him to restore her house. A park ranger now, she's raising the grandchild her daughter abandoned. As he gets closer to them both, he welcomes the opportunities for a second chapter to his life.
2. Shipmates Down Under - 26 pp - A couple's young daughter comes down with a severe fever, forcing them to cancel a trip to Australia and exposing the tensions in their marriage.
3. In Spain, One Thousand and Three - 28 pp - A great exploration of the unexpected directions grief can take. Handsome Martin, a former player with the ladies, settled down when he met cello-playing Evelyn. But after they married young, she unexpectedly died of cancer. In his grief, he finds all his old urges have come back. While still thoroughly mourning Evelyn, he's lusting after every woman he sees, a desire that makes him put the moves on someone he most definitely should not. (The title comes from his watching of the movie Don Giovanni and the number of women that player supposedly slept with in Spain.)
4. A Fair Trade - 33 pp - A young teenaged girl must move in with her aunt after her father dies in WWII and her mother is incapable of raising her. Her spinster aunt lives in a remote town outside of Seattle. With few friends her age, sexual fantasies about a neighboring caretaker for an elderly couple are about all the girl has to occupy herself. Still, as she rambles about the house while her aunt works, the girl learns to enjoy a solitary life, thinking she's as independent as her aunt. That preference for being alone ends up influencing her adult life, but years later she gets a few surprises about how her aunt has lived.
5. Blue River, Blue Sun - 22 pp - A 56-year-old geology professor reels from a divorce, not sure what to do with the dull monotony of his days. Left to wonder where it all went wrong, visting malls, with all their hustle and bustle, is one of the few pleasures he finds in life. But then a secretary in his university department, bitter over her own divorce, presents an opportunity for a date. The story has a very powerful conclusion.
6. Wizard - 19 pp - A substitute teacher writes a play for a very small-time theater about Thomas Edison (a personal obsession of his) and his much younger, first wife. The playwright develops a crush on the older woman cast in the role of the wife, and while they're rehearsing the story takes an intriguing sexual twist.
7. In the Kingdom of Priester John - 8 pp - A 17-year-old boy's crazy uncle goes missing, and with insanity running in the boy's family, he wonders about his own future. (Priester John was a mythical world traveler, whose stories of intrigue in unknown worlds fascinated Europeans in the late middle ages. It applies here because during a history exam the boy has to answer a question about the legendary myths that drove European explorers to Africa. It provides a parallel to the boy's uncle who has his own delusions about reality.)
8. Dirigibles - 12 pp - An older couple lives alone on a mountain, with the wife suffering from cerebral palsy. The wife isn't eager for a visit from a man who was a co-worker of theirs on an island ferry. The husband is eager to show old home movies of their younger days, but when the man shows up, both he and the couple have surprises in store for each other.