Simon Van Booy’s The Sadness of Beautiful Things

Reviewed by John Biscello

“O Lord, give us each our own death. Grant us
the dying that comes forth from that life in which
we knew love, grappled with meaning, felt need.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours

Simon Van Booy is a collector of stories, a distiller of them. He is the ear suctioned to the glass pressed against the door, the man scribbling on the back of matchbooks while seated in a hotel lobby, the sensual rover making his way through the patchwork euphony of voices in a diner. He is, in paraphrasing Anais Nin, a consummate spy in the house of love. Love, in all its splintered fragmentation, in all its rubbed shine, is always at the punchdrunk heart of Van Booy’s work, a dreamworn kernel in the grist of his tender elegies. His latest collection, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, inspired by true stories he was told during his travels, holds the power of love up to the light, in soft focus, while moving through a world of ache, sorrow and longing.

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The Sadness of Beautiful Things is prefaced by a line from T.S. Eliot: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” This acute tension of paradoxes, this grayness delineating a suture-point between yin and yang, is exactly where Van Booy excels as a storyteller and stylist. He traffics in those cracks where the lights gets in, and does so in cleanly measured lines and nuanced delicacy. He is the sensitive antenna to those people who are adrift in a sort of perpetual twilight, or feeling the gravity of emptiness in their lives:

“When he closed the door, they stared at one another through the glass, but only her outline was visible. It was the first of many times he would try to remember her face.

The first of many times he would look for someone and not see them.
Search for someone whose absence defined him.” (“The Hitchhiker”)

“There was a young woman on the beach staring at the water with her knees up. A blue swimsuit matched her eyes. She moved her fingers in the sand like she was drawing. One of her friends was getting buried.

Lenny did not feel love when he saw her, but just disappointment at how they would never meet. He wondered if other people felt things for strangers, then carried the weight of that absence.” (“Not Dying”)

In a sense, Van Booy’s is the literature of origami cranes and pale crescent moons, of sumi-e swaths of white engulfing scintillas of dark ink. As a metaphorical equivalent, I imagine a sober Raymond Carver, at the end of his life, opening a battered trunk containing a secret stash of dog-eared valentines written to girls he had loved, to the world at large, to life itself, and an autumn wind blowing past and scattering those valentines like winged vagrants.

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Simon Van Booy

Flush moments of palpitating intimacy are expressed by barest means: “When Diane laughed, hair blew in her face. Ben watched her push it away.” (“The Hitchhiker”), or, “When everything had been said, she lay down. Ben leaned back on his elbows, and their arms touched. He waited for Diane to move. He wondered if she knew they were touching.” (“The Hitchhiker”)

Van Booy’s gift is that he gets out of his own way, and allows plenty of breathing room so you can feel the characters, and engage their inner lives. It is a set-up in which compassion arises and flourishes, in which haunts are slow-bled, and dignity revived.

The innate kingdom of childhood, in all its awe and terror, and the bond between parents and children, is another arena to which Van Booy brings heightened sensitivity.

“Her mother stroked the girl’s forehead, feeling, but unable to say that inside every child is someone very small and without language; a stowaway from long ago.

The woman could see this little girl now. Could feel her presence with them, in the room.

A measure of what was lost.” (“Playing with Dolls”)

This parent-child bond, and the overarching theme of love as the ultimate redeemer, is eminently rendered in the story, “Not Dying.” Described as a fugue, “in which the voices come in/And the listeners go out, one by one” (Saint-Saens), “Not Dying” is recounted as a weblike panorama of fragments, a flickering enigma, in which the protagonist, Lenny, fears that the world is ending, and that his wife and daughter will be lost to him forever. With arresting lucidity, we move through the ebb and flow of Lenny’s wistful reminiscences and reflections:

“Lenny felt their lives were miraculous and small. But the smallness was more valuable to him than things he could not imagine. A universe with endless patches of hot and cold.

They were at the mercy of flesh and bone. Things he could not comprehend would never be greater than his daughter’s hands, his wife’s hair on the pillow at night like black rivers.”

“He remembered Jane’s gloved hand on the fender earlier. Her voice counting down. Then holding hands as they ran across fresh snow onto a patch of bare ice, sliding effortlessly in their shoes, almost falling down with laughter.

As he stood there in the very cold night, it occurred to Lenny that the world had many good things.

It didn’t have to have anything, but it did.
And he had felt them.”

It is passages like these, moments like these, which are nothing short of stargates leading to grace and gratitude. To love, which ennobles itself as “something tiny and bright with eternity on all sides.” Van Booy’s slices of eternity, and the lives they encompass, exist as marvels in miniature.

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