The varied collection of 11 stories and corresponding vignettes that make up Stephen Byler’s Searching for Intruders maintained my interest, even while I kept a list of gripes about them overall. Byler’s stories bear a more-than-passing resemblance to those of Raymond Carver. His writing shares a similar spare focus and rich dialogue. Like Carver, Byler’s interest is in throwing light on a moment, or series of moments, suggesting greater depth beneath the surface of everyday events. His themes are common and universal, his character development limited to what is necessary in the present. Like Carver, Byler’s writing leaves much to the imagination. His characters are generally silent concerning deep, personal motives. Carver’s mastery was in exploring themes from various angles and slightly altered contexts: viewing a relationship from the inside, or through the eyes of a neutral (though far from objective) third person with his own story to reflect on. But Carver only published short stories, each with its own development of plot and characters. And here lies the crux of the problems with Byler’s otherwise fine collection of stories. Byler tries to cobble the collection into a novel, of sorts. In doing so he sets himself up with pitfalls he never really resolves. Ultimately, the stories comprising Searching For Intruders end up leaning unnecessarily on each other, or pretending to be a novel they never quite become.
The story’s protagonist and narrator, Wilson, is a good-hearted buffoon with a rudimentary college education. He suffers from a closet full of demons, and has just enough savvy to hang himself with his own rope. We follow Wilson’s ruminations, reliving highlights of his adult life, with the aim of figuring out what went wrong with his marriage to Melody, a former “Dairy Princess” beauty queen. Byler’s gift is in showing how specific tragic moments carry the potential for lasting realizations. We are granted an objective omniscience, watching events in hindsight, through Wilson’s eyes. Like a flash of light between the lines of the story, epiphanies arise from Wilson’s self-inflicted misery. They light the scene, unacknowledged, and then are gone.
If this collection suffers, it is from being neither fish nor fowl, neither just short stories nor a novel. Most of the stories stand up well on their own: the breakdown of love in a roach-infested apartment; a rafting trip turned sour; stepping into a fight between quarreling lovers, recreating Wilson’s father’s fatal crash with a model airplane. A vivid mix of gravity and humor keeps the writing lively. Byler’s characters careen like juggernauts from romance to disillusionment, from certainty to ironic bewilderment. Wilson’s mono-maniacally self-centered vision works well in a short story, but begins to show limitations as the superimposed “novel” develops. Over the length of the book, the characters lose their brightness, flattening out into stereotypes, and blending into an undeveloped background.
Byler seems indifferent to specific elements that might give his settings an authentic face. He keeps his characters moving, from New York City to Montana to Reading, Penn. The characters rarely refer to anything outside of immediate circumstances. They could be anybody, anywhere. For instance, even though Wilson and Mel’s “mutual friends” make a cameo appearance in one of the stories, we learn nothing about them. They are simply extras used to illustrate a stereotype: who gets the friends after the breakup. Certainly, Wilson’s parents would seem to rate having their own story told. Their general absence from the plot is strange and conspicuous. Inevitably, both the characters and their stories begin to seem rootless. Even Wilson becomes sadly amorphous, because Byler neglects to give us reasons why we should care about him. (He may as well be a guy in a bar, telling us of the dissolution of his marriage. We feel a slight compelling interest. We are glad to help him sort out his problems, to get them off his chest. There might even be a minor epiphany in it for us. Nevertheless, by tomorrow, we will most likely forget him. If we see him again, we may or may not say “hello.”) Even the stories set in Wilson’s hometown of Reading could be anywhere. The Amish and Mennonites that people the backgrounds remain as anonymous as wallpaper. We only see them as they drive by in carriages, work their fields or watch from a distance.
A short vignette precedes each story, most of them recalling violent episodes with Wilson’s abusive father. Each paired vignette and story becomes a kind of loose metaphor, illuminating an underlying theme: the last fight before moving out; the mysterious ability to confuse love with anger, the perception of sex as violence; the intentional destruction of something beautiful; the damage caused by male perceptions of female beauty. Byler’s open-ended structure invites speculation. The vignettes are meant to weave the separate stories into a whole cloth, and elucidate the overarching theme suggested in the title, Searching for Intruders: Essentially, Wilson is seeking to understand the demons from his past that destroy his potential for happiness in the present. The vignettes are overly brutal, often downright unpleasant. They do very little, if anything, to illuminate or give direction to the stories themselves. Had Byler gone with his strengths, he might have known the stories are enough, without the contrived structure the vignettes are supposed to provide.