October 16, 2014
Descansos is the Mexican Spanish term for roadside shrines, the kind long seen along highways in the American Southwest. These small, spontaneous memorials have spread to cities, where people pay respect to a shooting victim or a bicyclist killed by a car with an arrangement of appropriate objects, such as flowers, photographs, signs, teddy bears. We’ve seen them all too often lately on the news if not in our own neighborhoods.
Some of the stories in Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines are about descansos, and some are essentially descansos themselves, memorials to all manner of troubled folk, from a hobo to a war vet to a lonely kid who raises pigeons. The settings range all over America, even to Mexico and Japan, and they’re packed with remarkable imagery that made me think, Yes, that’s exactly right. Here’s one example, from a story about a woman whose husband has periodic outbursts of violence:
She can sense the rages coming, the way Seamus [a black lab] knows when a storm is moving in. A certain electricity in the air, a rise in the ozone level, a climb in atmospheric pressure. Then the color goes out of the room, like watching a movie in black and white. And just before—just before is this unbearable quiet, this silence, a space where direction could change, but won’t. [p. 187]
Those instants when the world loses all color and sound… Yes, we’ve all been there.
Though his protagonists are wounded in some way, Lyons resists attempts to sentimentalize or typecast them. For instance, that violent guy who beats his wife? When he’s not in a rage, he rescues wounded animals. And the wife, does she follow the typical pattern of resisting counselors who try to pull her free of the situation? No, she doesn’t bother with counseling; she handles the matter herself, in dramatic fashion. (Sorry, no spoiler.)
Since the author is a friend of mine, I fear that further praise of Brief Eulogies would be sentimental in a way the stories are not. Yet I do want to mention one other feature of this collection: an Afterword that discusses the “seeds” of each story. Normally I’m bored with writers talking about their craft. It’s the fiction I care about, not the mulling over it. In this case, though, the brief personal vignettes the author shares are almost as moving as the stories themselves.
For a quick introduction to Brief Eulogies, here’s a video clip of the author reading at the book launch.