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Book Review

A collection of lyrical stories about New Englanders

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / March 26, 2011

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Vermont author William Lychack is an emerging writer, whose graceful first novel “The Wasp Eater,’’ was generally well received. That story, about a 10-year-old boy who watches his family fall apart, derives much of its power from writing that’s imaginative and lyrical.

Poetic writing drives the best stories in Lychack’s first collection: Thirteen stories, two of which were collected in the Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart anthologies. These tales of sometimes anonymous middle-class New Englanders read like vignettes or character studies; others are full-blown stories. A couple of stories include characters from the broken Cussler family of “Wasp Eater.’’ But whether the stories portray family relationships, despair, death, or making one’s way in an often-brutal world, graceful prose typifies the best of them.

Lychack’s lyrical phrasing, most effective in the shorter tales, resembles a combination of stream-of-consciousness writing with an indirect free style — even when told in the second person — that makes some potentially slight stories powerful.

Lychack makes a simple plot potent in the compelling “Stolpestad,’’ included in The Pushcart Prize XXXIV anthology. Stolpestad is a work-weary cop. He’s asked by a 9-year-old and his mother to put their dying dog out of its misery. The cop performs the mercy killing, which offers him a sort of redemption: doing one good deed for a poor family. When things go awry after the chore appears done, the off-duty, half-drunk cop is confronted by the boy and his sarcastic father. He wants Stolpestad to keep the dog’s tags as “a token of appreciation, in honor of all you did for them today.’’ Told in the second person, present tense, there is such an immediacy to the story you feel as if you are Stolpestad “a piece of dark within the dark.’’

Another second-person story that equals the immediacy of “Stolpestad,’’ “Griswald’’ is a powerful and purposely ambiguous vignette of an unnamed adult looking back at his childhood. Whether it’s a story on the news or a school bus, something always makes the man remember how he may have been molested by an old neighbor who would take the boy to the park, invite him for sodas, teach him to swim. The boy told no one, and as an adult, he thinks maybe nothing happened: “Just an old man trying to be nice to a boy.’’ But the narrator (and the reader) is uncertain, and real or not the memory still lingers: “nothing happening forever.’’

Anna and Bob Cussler, characters from “The Wasp Eater,’’ return in two stories. In “To the Farm,’’ an elderly Anna visits her dead husband’s grave and reconnects with relatives she hasn’t seen in decades. In “Chickens,’’ a young and pregnant Anna brings two-dozen baby chickens home and, to her husband’s chagrin, spreads them out on the kitchen floor.

Anna’s having a difficult pregnancy that’s contributing to an already thorny marriage. She wishes she could make Bob feel like she does: crying for no reason, having to hold back her emotions. Lychack conflates Anna’s pregnancy with the development of the chicks into 23 roosters — they add to her misery, and, as she names and slaughters them, she feels her baby “kicking field goals into [her] chest.’’

Lychack’s lyrical technique works best in the shorter pieces, but doesn’t always succeed. Occasionally, phrases cropped of their pronouns, articles, and nouns make for cumbersome reading. Wisely, he uses the technique sparingly in the longer stories. His best stories come alive with a sense of urgency partly achieved by a lyrical writing style and an exactly right narrative voice.

Lychack’s a talented writer who understands his characters, whether 8 or elderly, cops or housewives. At 45, Lychack brings a mature worldview to these stories, making his first collection better than many by younger authors already on their third or fourth collections.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

THE ARCHITECT OF FLOWERS By William Lychack

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 176 pp., $14