Books June 2003

Still Growing

Michael Byers' first novel, though ambitious and often engaging, suggests that he hasn't yet made the leap from short stories
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Michael Byers published his first book, a collection of short stories, five years ago, at the age of twenty-eight. The Coast of Good Intentions was so precociously accomplished—almost weirdly mature—that it somehow makes sense for this still young author to have chosen a medical rarity he calls Hickman syndrome (his version of Hutchinson-Gilford disease) as the subject of his first novel. The brief lives of Hickman patients look like time-lapse photography: "arthritis at ten, osteoporosis for the girls at eleven, straight into senility before hitting puberty, and death from heart failure or simple old age by nineteen at the very latest."

The central victim of Long for This World is the smart, funny fourteen-year-old William Durbin, a colossally good sport in the face of his genetic catastrophe. The reader has no trouble believing that Dr. Henry Moss, a nice-guy fifty-one-year-old Hickman researcher, has come to love William as much as he does his own normal, gawky son, Darren. Nor does the reader doubt that Henry will violate research protocol and risk his career in William's behalf after he discovers the disease's first "asymptomatic positive," an arrogantly healthy boy named Thomas Benhamouda, who produces an "unprecedented enzyme" that keeps him from coming down with Hickman and that might, by injection, reverse the quickly dying William's symptoms.

Thomas isn't just free from the disease he carries on his anomalous eighth chromosome. This boy with unusually sweet breath (and a foul mouth) is corporeally almost perfect: "What dainty inner ears he had! What tidy nostrils! How his heart resounded behind his ribs!" His Hickman-thwarting enzyme could conceivably be the key not only to William's survival but to longer lives for the whole human race.

This long-shot possibility threatens to send Byers's delicate literary production off into the land of Robin Cook. The reader can occasionally feel the author fighting commercial temptation, struggling to content himself with the quiet philosophical opportunities his subject matter provides, the chance to ponder time's misaligning tricks. (When, thanks to Thomas's enzyme, William rejuvenates slightly, Henry finds himself crying with joy and relief, "an old man, leaking tears everywhere he went.") Byers's wariness of seduction seems replicated in Henry, who wonders if the enzyme he has patented will be his own "faintly unsavory" shot at the big new money all around him. (The novel is set in late-1990s dot-com Seattle.)

To his credit, Byers keeps the book, and his career, serious. Long for This World remains, more than anything else, the sort of family drama common in modern American literary fiction. Henry's Austrian wife, Ilse, undergoes a believable midlife crisis—buying an old Vespa to scoot around on; giving up her job in hospital administration for "medical social work" downtown—and the couple's children are convincingly apportioned their shares of adolescent woe and charm. Byers, who excels at teenspeak, performs his best structural work in attaching Henry's offspring to their father's research drama. Darren makes friends with William (taking him out for a secret late-night ride on that Vespa), while Sandra, a six-foot-one high school basketball star ("this big piece of Henry wandering around in the world"), has to fight her attraction to Thomas. The book's minor characters are all well drawn, especially William's father, Bernie, a rich lawyer ("completely bald now ... a younger, more vital version of his son"), whose love and torment are established with heartbreaking exactitude. Given a couple more pages, he could have walked off with the novel.

Byers's feeling for his characters is part of his appreciative wonder at the world. ("Everything became history eventually, if you just left it alone.") He applies acute psychological touches (Henry allows William's mother to give her son the first injection) and displays a virtuosity with figurative language that puts him in a class with such new American masters as Charles Baxter and Antonya Nelson; a medical test entails "the disloyal leap of blood" into the needle that draws it.

Still, Byers has not quite made the leap to being a novelist, which requires a writer to grasp the paradox that the literary novel, in its embrace of more than sensibility and epiphany, needs to move faster than the short story. The longer form is at once more ample and less leisurely. Too often Byers won't drop the tufts of his novel's fabric from his own cherishing fingers. Much here could be abbreviated—the cascade of gross-out jokes between the boys, page after page about Sandra at basketball camp. When Ilse is out riding drunk on her scooter, finding the outdoors to be "overloaded with the details of the afternoon," Byers has just the excuse he craves to tell us that the vehicle in front of her is "an orange Stita taxi, radio-dispatched, EL3409, a Caprice Classic ..." The book's oddly forgettable title threatens to take on a third meaning—an insult to its pacing—in addition to the two conveying longevity and desire.

And if the novel refuses to explode in any gaudy best-selling way, it shouldn't just subside into anticlimax and its own loose ends. (Does the neighbor's suicide ever amount to anything? Does the discovery that Ilse's mother has money have any impact at all?) A lack of follow-through and shapeliness makes this book less than the sum of its excellent set pieces, which is to say that Michael Byers, a writer I'm eager to keep reading, needs one more growth spurt.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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