Dying Light and Other Stories
By Donald Hays, McAdam/Cage, hardcover, $23 (in bookstores July 15).
As a part-time teacher of creative writing at UALR, the thing I find myself saying most often to beginning fiction writers is: “You ended your story where it should have begun.” What I’m talking about, of course, is the tendency — even in published and established writers — to dodge the hard work that comes with depicting characters living with their decisions long after the fat lady sings.
The value of age and wisdom in a writer is on display in Donald Hays’ new book “Dying Light and Other Stories.” These are stories that begin where they should, with characters who are on intimate terms with shame, guilt and fear. Though Hays — director of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville — seems to have a problem with sprinkling bits of ProfessorThink into the minds of his characters (the simplest of them ponder life deep enough to make a Buddhist monk jealous), this is still a book of rare honesty and power; a glimpse into the hearts of the brokenhearted.
Almost paradoxically — especially for a book that is so fixated on the long-term — many of the stories in “Dying Light” concern those who are dying, mourning a loved one, or leaving someone behind. In the title story, a failed painter comes home to live with his dying father. Elsewhere, in the sublime “The Rites of Love,” a middle-aged woman who is mourning her son visits the ex-love she left years before when he was paralyzed from the neck down. In “Material,” a college professor is caught having an affair with a student and comes to suspect that she was only in it for the experience. In “Salvage,” an old man whose wife is dying calls on the woman who once turned down his marriage proposal.
My favorite of the collection, however, was a story more about the death of truth than of the flesh. In “Why He Did It,” an elementary school principal sees his 15-year-old stepdaughter as a seductress and a threat to the future of his college-age son. In order to get rid of her, he does the unthinkable: He exposes himself to her, then plays the part of the hurt victim when the girl tells her mother, feeling triumphant when she is sent away to live with her father. Where most writers would stop there, Hays spins his story out over the course of almost 10 years, giving us a front row seat as his main character is crushed by the weight of doubt, guilt and fear that his son might know the truth. It’s a story worth reading as soon as you lay hands on the book.
Overall, the best thing I can say about “Dying Light” is that Hays obviously knows how to tell a story. While that may sound like shallow praise, in this world full of gimmicky hucksters and sub-literate essayists posing as fiction writers, it’s some of the highest praise I can dish out.
-- By David Koon