The deceptively simple worlds William Lychack opens in his first short-story collection, The Architect Of Flowers, force a closer look at the duties and obligations that surround death. The threat of death hangs heavy over the household depicted in “The Old Woman And Her Thief,” where a bedridden woman makes a near-miraculous recovery only after unburdening herself of a secret that will sicken her husband in turn. In the titular story, the wife of a professional hybridizer fears finding her husband dead in the garden where he works, waiting and dreading in equal measure. Sometimes animals are the objects of the violent impulses at work, as a nearly off-duty cop is called in to put down a boy’s sick dog in “Stolpestad,” and a pregnant housewife kills her roosters one by one in “Chickens.” A dead deer in “Hawkins” leads a suburban husband to call in his neighbors, to “give them a story to tell down at the VFW” and to handle the butchering he wishes he was capable of; he lingers at the butchering site, unwilling to go home and console his wife over hitting the deer in the first place.
For Lychack’s restless kids and out-of-their-depth adults, death is an unavoidable part of the landscape, an occasion for annoyance or arrangements, but never for wild flares of grief. With no naked appeals to emotion, what initially comes across as a disconnection from the human bonds that should produce grief is shaped into an inconsolable acceptance. This functions twice as well for works like “Stolpestad,” where death is a mercy, or should be; the breakdown of communication in emotion works toward the stories’ effect, not against.
That apparent flatness of affect allows the protagonists of The Architect Of Flowers to pick up on more than they might in the throes of grief. Their observations constantly steer away from the banal, but that common voice has its limitations: Some of Lychack’s narrators sound all too similar when placed side-by-side, particularly the younger protagonists of “Calvary” and “Thin End Of The Wedge.” (The closer, “To The Farm,” in which an woman remembers a mean joke played by her dead husband, is a welcome break on this note.) Still, in this milieu, heavy with the sense of (as the narrator of “Griswald” describes) “these nights not existing at all, these days not happening, nothing ever happening—and nothing still happening,” the isolation of unmanifested grief amplifies its meaning.