Saturday, August 6, 2011

Re-enchanting the World: The Architect of Flowers by William Lychack

Long after you have finished reading The Architect of Flowers and set it aside to move on to other books, the cadence of William Lychack’s prose will continue to click like a metronome in your head.  You may forget the plots of these stories (an old woman trains a crow to steal for her, a boy confronts memories of his father at his funeral), you may forget some of the characters (a ghost-writer, a pregnant woman raising chickens, a mother and her gun-toting son), but I’m willing to bet you’ll have a hard time shaking loose Lychack’s distinct voice.

It’s a style that boldly announces itself on the first page of the first story, “Stolpestad,” which is told from the second-person point of view, putting us in the shoes of a small-town cop as he patrols the streets:
      Was toward the end of your shift, a Saturday, another one of those long slow lazy afternoons of summer—sun never burning through the clouds, clouds never breaking into rain—odometer like a clock ticking all those bored little pent-up streets and mills and tenements away. The coffee shops, the liquor stores, laundromats, police, fire, gas stations to pass—this is your life, Stolpestad—all the turns you could make in your sleep, the brickwork and shop fronts and river with its stink of carp and chokeweed, the hills swinging up free from town, all momentum and mood, roads smooth and empty, this big blue hum of cruiser past houses and lawns and long screens of trees, trees cutting open to farms and fields all contoured and high with corn, air thick and silvery, as if something was on fire somewhere—still with us?
      That sandy turnaround—always a question, isn’t it?
      Gonna pull over and ride back down or not?
      End of your shift—or nearly so—and in comes the call. It’s Phyllis, dispatcher for the weekend, that radio crackle of her voice, and she’s sorry for doing this to you but a boy’s just phoned for help with a dog. And what’s she think you look like now, you ask, town dogcatcher? Oh, you should be so lucky, she says and gives the address and away we go.

Away we go indeed.  We drive over to the house with the cop, past “the apartments stacked with porches, the phone poles and wires and sidewalks all close and cluttered,” and answer the call which turns into an emotionally wrenching event—both for Stolpestad the cop and for us the reader.

Each of Lychack’s thirteen stories is a miniature emotional event.  We read a story and then, overwhelmed, we put the book aside to go walk the dog, cook the dinner, or just stare blankly into space, giving ourselves time to process what we just went through.

The action in these stories is relatively small, contained in moments of compressed drama. Witness, for instance, the way “Hawkins” opens:
      Killed a deer last night. Kate and me and this creature almost completely over us. Flash of animal, tug of wheel, sound we felt more than heard, poor thing lying on the side of the road as we pulled around.
      Should have just kept driving, gone home, felt bad. Don’t know what possessed us to get out of the car. November and nothing but trees around. No cars, no houses, deer small and slender, tongue powdered with sand.

Lychack’s strength lies in his ability to render details in language so precise—at once familiar and fresh—that the stories demand multiple re-reads just to savor the gorgeous flavor of the words.  In “Chickens,” we sit in a “house so quiet you could hear the clock chewing minutes the way an insect chews a leaf.”  In “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” a lawn is “the green of frozen peas.” In “Like a Demon,” a roadside diner has the “slushy sound of cutlery and voices, walls of quilted aluminum.” And in the title story, which centers around a plant hybridizer and his wife trying to hold the family together, Lychack turns a mere buttonhole into poetry:

Back in the city he worked in buttons. Glass buttons, plastic buttons, buttons of silver, copper, brass, coral, leather, lacquer, amber, pewter, gold. Buttons of broken china. Buttons of shipwrecked coins. Five, seven, eleven years in buttons and beads and able to recite the breathless rise of the lowly button in his sleep, its underdog days as hopeless decoration, early alliance with suspender and belt, marriage to buttonhole, love affairs with safety pin and clasp hook, mentor to the metal snap, arch-nemesis of the zipper.
In some stories, like “Griswald” in which an elderly neighbor takes a too-keen interest in a nine-year-old boy, a feeling of menace hums like a barely-discernable bass note below each sentence.  The language is beautiful but you can’t shake that clammy unease.  This is how Lychack gets us—he lulls us with music, then turns us sharply around to face the mirror.  Why do you think “Stolpestad” is told in that direct-address narrative style?  Lychack’s characters are us.

I can think of no better way to summarize The Architect of Flowers than this description which can be found on Lychack’s website: “all the characters in this collection yearn to somehow re-enchant the world, to turn the ordinary and profane into the sacred and beautiful again, to make beauty serve as an antidote to grief.”

Lychack takes all the hard, ugly, misshapen realities of our world, waves his pen like a magic wand, reaches into the hat, and pulls out—not rabbits or doves, but something infinitely better: words.  Language like we’ve never seen before and probably won’t see again for a long time.  At least not until Lychack's next book.


  1. Absolutely magical stories. The whole book is an inspiration to me and my own writing; there's not a misplaced action, image, or word.