“Byzantium” is the first story in Ben Stroud’s collection of short stories of the same name. It is set in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclitus, soon after his defeat of the Persians in the Battle of Ninevah in 627 AD. Heraclitus was at the height of his power. He had regained Asia Minor, returned the True Cross to Jerusalem, brought Christianity to the Balkans, and changed the language of the Roman Empire from Latin to Greek. The plot of the story juxtaposes faith and political power because of the occupational paranoia of emperors. The son of a fictional general removed from command by Emperor Phocas, before Heraclitus the Elder deposed him, is a disappointment to his father because of the physical deformity of his arm. His mother has a vision that it will be cured by a holy man. The monk, Theodosius, is considered a threat by Heraclitus and sends the general’s son to see him at the Monastery of the Five Holy Martyrs. Theodosius is also the name of the son of Emperor Phocas’ predecessor, Emperor Maurice. The Persians substituted an imposter for the predeceased Theodosius as a pretext to invade the Byzantine Empire to restore him as emperor. Whether Mr. Stroud intentionally named his monk Theodosius to heighten Heraclitus’ paranoia is unclear. The choice of the Five Holy Martyrs is also an interesting choice given the plot and that Heraclitus was a defender of Christianity. Facially, this is a simple tale of a son trying to ultimately please a more fabled father. Its historical and Christian underpinnings add depth and make it more compelling.
“East Texas Lumber”, “Don’s Cinnamon”, and “Borden’s Meat Biscuit” are by contrast narrative romps: character studies of a couple of Texas laborers whose intent of a good-time interfere with their job; a colored private investigator trying to balance employment and prejudice in Havanna; and a failed inventor trying to find his brass ring in post-Civil War Galveston.
I am unaware whether there ever was a religious commune of Hebronites that settled in Mackinac Michigan in the second half the 19th Century. “The Traitor of Zion” is about a calling during this time to this location. The calling is to The Book of Truths. As with many cults there is fluidity between extremes, with reduction of the truth to group acceptance.
“Eraser” and “At Boquillas” are about lost people. The first about a child faced with a domineering step-father and indifferent mother. It is a story that has been told before, but it is impactful nonetheless. The second story is about a woman in a new marriage with a falandering husband. She discovers her backbone and voice.
“Tayopa” follows the protagonist’s renewal of his life while in search of a mine.”Amy” looks at falandering in a new marriage from the husband’s perspective. “The Moor” is a fictional biography of a reknowned black detective in late 19th Century Europe, whose love life is curtailed by bigoted mores.
Ben Stroud is the recipient of the 2012 Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize that is published by Graywolf Press. The stories in this collection are good stories and evidence a range of style and scholarship.