Night in the Sun
By Kyle Coma-Thompson
Dock Street Press
Reviewed by Ray Barker
Kyle Coma-Thompsons's second collection of short stories, Night in the Sun, contains the mystery, precision, and musical rhythms of poetry. No surprise, there: Coma-Thompson has regularly published poems in a range of literary journals for the past decade or so. The compact and disciplined elements of poetry are found throughout this collection, evidenced in Coma-Thompson's special attention to word selection and their arrangement on the page, striking and surprising imagery, and in the general movement of the pieces—from word to word, and story to story.
In Robert Frost's famous (but perhaps now stale) essay, "The Figure a Poem Makes," he writes, "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting." The slow, deliberate movement Frost describes is thread throughout Night in the Sun, where the reader can rely on the poetic qualities and intellectual positing of attractive ideas, even when the stories themselves tend to take an overly-cerebral route.
In keeping with the inverted impossibility of the book's title (or is a night in the sun possible?), Coma-Thompson inverts the traditional expectations of the short story reader, working within the form, while expanding its possibilities. A dense 226 pages, nearly the size of my hand, most of the stories here operate under their own logic, slightly closed off, told by a voice friendly and familiar with the characters and their stories.
And the characters typically exist in some form of isolation—from one another or from themselves. There's an exploratory, searching quality to Coma-Thompson's work, casting a wide geographic net to include: Idaho, where a Bosnian man speaks of Rome and Florence; Arkansas; Oregon; Washington, DC; Boston; Milan; and a narrator who speaks to his suicidal friend in Croatia. Each character is navigating the modern world, and the stories work like puzzle pieces, suggesting a movement towards assembling themselves as a coherent narrative picture.
In an online interview, Coma-Thompson remarks that attention spans are "not to be trifled with," and he proves this throughout the collection where each story averages about four pages. In the longer pieces, "The Beast" and "Spite & Malice," Coma-Thompson permits the reader to explore a wider canvas.
At first glance, these pieces may strike the reader as unnecessarily intellectual—all brain, no room for heart or humor. Those paying closer attention, however, will find the jokes—mostly dark, tossed off so unassumingly you may miss them—to be a subconscious sarcasm bleeding into the sentences like water finding open cracks in pavement. "The Beast" (also affectionately known as "Le Beast," and a litany of other names in the story) is a closely-observed character study and comic piece about accidental encounters with a French comedian, detailing his improvised rise to celebrity: "Everyone knows the story, because more than a life, from the very beginning it seems conceived as a story. It hits every conceivable note one would expect from a Rags-to-Riches plot line."
That the main plot line begins a third of the way into the story is indicative of Coma-Thompson's style—not exactly a refutation of traditional short story forms and structures, just a casual side-step away from those well-worn paths. This storyline runs parallel to the main character's description of the eventual dissolution of his relationship with his lover. After he's abandoned by both his lover and the Beast at story's end, the narrator struggles to describe the departed lover:
"She was everything he wasn't," I want to say. Not much of a description, I know. But to bring a person back into view, best not to put too many words on them. So then, how else to put it? She was the kind of woman who's best not left to description. If you want anything more, as The Beast might say, add it yourself. Then wonder what's left to leave out.
The same could be said for the entire collection—the stories never revealing more than what is necessary, leaving the rest to the reader at their moment of reading, and then on subsequent readings in the future.
Elsewhere, the even more sparse "Story for Fire," at a mere page and a half, is a static meditation on the incendiary subject, and begins bravely as a simple mission: "I'd wanted to rediscover fire. How does one do that? It'd already been studied, explained, broken down into a kind of narrative—first this happened, then this, and from this sequence of events came fire."
Because of its accidental or intended analogy to Coma-Thompson's similar mission to do the same for the short story form (I presume), I'd have preferred to see this story placed first in the collection. Actually, the entire collection could benefit from a thoughtful re-shuffling of the order of many of these stories to create a greater overall effect (though "Several Highly Successful Habits of Bad Men" and "A Man (Untitled)" fit together snugly, playfully detailing the mysteries of male and female relationships, back-to-back).
Curiously, "Seven for a Leper" nearly echoes "Lost Dances," a story from Coma-Thompson's previous collection of stories (The Lucky Body, 2013), where clever and imaginary forms of dances are cataloged. Here, the seven voices switch between Patient X, who believes he's suffering from an imaginary disease causing his very skin to rot, to his wife, who is helpless and can only standby to try to help, though she ultimately leaves him. The next voices speak in neutral, clinical terms, finally closing with a testimonial by the third shift nurse, describing her care for the man, her hand on his forehead, songs she'd sing, and that he, recovering a little, would hum, too. The nurse says, "It starts high, quiet. Simple. One note. One long note. Then others coming upon it, to turn it like a wheel." Such a beautiful phrase to end the odd story.
Finally, though, the strongest stories are "M.W.," "From a Room," "27-B," and "No Hampshire." Coma-Thompson is a writer who has such obvious control over his skills—the surprising phrase; the elliptical quality of storytelling; interesting word selection; keen eye for details; sensitively observed scenes; and again, a poet's ear for musical tones. These stories' emotional undertones bubble to the surface. "27-B" filters its tragic story of a male passenger (27-B is his seat assignment, though a reductive title if ever there was one) suffering a brief heart attack and dying mid-flight from New York to Paris through a story-within-a-story device via the flight attendant's telling, that adds emotional weight, eliciting gems like this one:
There was a corpse hurtling through the air and the connotations weren't too difficult to carry to their natural conclusion—that the plane was now, among other things, a rapidly advancing coffin, containing the dead, the bereaved, and perhaps most frighteningly, a surplus of pallbearers.
And discover the emotional shades in the opening paragraph of "No Hampshire":
The light glistening on the large smooth stones on the shoreline, Kennebunkport. Ocean scarred with hard, cold wind. The water gray, bearing white teeth on the crumble of small waves. This is where you've brought your head, its increasing weight. A hydrocephalic of bad introspection.
That "bad introspection" (or "merciless and innocent surgery") drives the remainder of the story: the anguished detailing of a dissolved marriage and its caustic effects on the protagonist. The main character talks himself, and talks to himself—slowly, painfully, at times, robotically—through the initial steps of ownership, then cleansing, towards a form of absolution. The methodical recovery of a human man, rebuilt again, step by single step, with every intake of new breath.