I came across Ben Stroud’s short-story collection on the New shelf at my library a couple of weeks ago. The title caught my eye - Byzantium. I am a byzantinophile to no small degree, and sad indeed are the years 1071, 1204 and 1453 in my eyes*. The titular title does take place in the Eastern Empire on the eve of the Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt (7th century AD); however, the rest of the stories range all over and there’s no especially Roman theme to the book. And the rest of the stories are pretty good. There’s a bloodlessness about them, a dispassion, that prevents me from whole-heartedly endorsing Stroud but there are at least two here that I would give four to five stars.
- “Byzantium” – A few years before Mohammad’s followers conquer the provinces Heraclius had retaken from the Persians after 30+ years of war, the emperor fears the possible rebellion of a monk with a claim to the throne and sends a young courtier manqué to deal with the problem.
- “East Texas Lumber” – This is about a ne’er-do-well slacker drifting through life, working at a lumberyard, bemoaning his lot but doing nothing to break out of his cage. The latter theme – the passivity of people – crops up a lot in these stories.
- “The Don’s Cinnamon” – Takes place in pre-Civil War Cuba and concerns a “free gentleman of color” who, not able to find a traditional job, inadvertently becomes a Sherlock Holmes, solving otherwise inexplicable cases.
- “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” – Another story set in the pre-Civil War Americas. Central America in this case. The protagonist and narrator is a white entrepreneur trying to make his fortune.
- “The Traitor of Zion” – This story is about a dissolute young man who becomes involved with one of the millennial cults that flourished in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century.
- “Erase” – One of the stories set in the modern era, this one is about an alienated boy.
- “At Bequillas” (four stars) – This is one of the two stories that hit me on a visceral level. It recounts a brief episode in the life a failing marriage, and it spoke to my own as I recognized myself in both characters. Particularly in the self-absorption and small hurts we inflict on each other and our refusal to own up to them. Another thing that set this story apart was that Shelly, the wife, acts to change her life.
- “Tayopa” – A story about a Mexican official sent to find a legendary Jesuit silver mine.
- “Amy” (four stars) – Like “At Bequillas,” this story is about a failing marriage as told from the POV of the husband. This one hit even closer to home than the previous story. Probably – and I say this without pride – because I saw a lot of my (younger) self in the unnamed protagonist.
- “The Moor” – An homage to Sherlock Holmes, this story is about an expat African-American who comes to Berlin and quickly makes a name for himself as a solver of unsolvable crimes; he even acquires a Moriarty-like arch-enemy and an “Irene Adler” to spend an all-too-brief time with. (There’s an intimation that the protagonist is the narrator from “The Don’s Cinnamon.”) It’s also a comment on how “the black man” is viewed by the majority white culture both then and now. And it’s those contrivances that make this story less interesting than it might have been but it’s still well-written and – if you’re a Holmesian – fun.
In fact, all of these stories are well-written and interesting but – as I wrote above – most are written without passion. Or without any authorial passion coming through the words. I can recommend this collection with confidence but I don’t think these stories are memorable or that Stroud is a “magician” as the book’s editor notes in his hyperbolic “Introduction.” Stroud might indeed be all that but it’s not evident here.
* I refuse to be an enabler. If you want to know why these three years are particularly tragic, LOOK IT UP!