Darkly comic and beautifully written stories

“The Business of Naming Things” by Michael Coffey

This is not a new book to the world, published in 2015, but it is new to me and so delightful, in a darkly comic, smart, sometimes darkly poignant way, that I wanted to call some attention to it.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with the author, but had not been familiar with his work. “The Business of Naming Things” by Bolton Landing resident Michael Coffey, is a book of short stories whose characters are often a bit confused, sometimes a tad deranged, sometimes so clear thinking that their perspective shimmers as a lake at sunset.

On the darker side of the spectrum of these stories, “Inn of the Nations” tells of the unraveling of a priest, his elaborate self-justifications, the beginnings of his detachment from reality. Coffey’s beautiful prose nudges us around both appall and if not empathy, something approaching a nod at the complexities of humanity, its terrible foolhardiness and need. The main character, waking from his night’s activities, reaches into a cooler: “Inside, a single can of Ballantine ale swims, green and gold, rim nosing above the surface. Save me; I’m drowning.”

“Moon Over Quabbin” settles into the unsettled mind of a grieving mother imagining the whereabouts of her son’s donated organs, losing track herself of who she is, dissolving into something other than the sum of her parts, even as her son is dissolved. She says, “But when the moon is full and bright in the sky, that one moon that is everyone’s moon, I know it tugs on the tides of my boy, his humors, wherever they are.”

In “The Newman Boys” an adolescent boy struggles with his own upbringing and finds grace in the company of an odd family newly, and only briefly, moved into the house next door. When he by chance encounters the family many years later, that grace is regranted to him. “From the shade of the porch, the sunlit lawn glowed like a host, its steady pulse a comfort, life itself, evenly trimmed … This thought came to him: In an infinite field, the center is anywhere.”

Every sentence in the lengthy, multi-part “Sons” feels polished to a gleam, even though they reveal the main character in his bleak and ironic sense of self and world, and his tenuous connections to it.

The prose is beautiful in these stories, the plots quirky, the people odd ducks. The themes are loss and longing, belonging and identity, love and the perplexities of living. This is beautiful work. Coffey is also a poet, which shines through the writing.


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