Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch

I knew that Lynch was both a poet and the hands-on owner of a family funeral business when I picked up this book, so I had high but unspecified hopes. I did not know that he was also a bourgeois Irish Catholic in his middle years, conventional and midwestern down to his socks and full of the most nonspecific version of the True American Religion as it is possible to be. So the book I was hoping for -- a clear-eyed look at death and how we deal with it in the modern world -- only appears in The Undertaking in flashes, interspersed with sub-Thomas Merton thoughts about the meaning of life and how we'll all be enfolded in Jesus's hand and lovingly placed in sunlight uplands to live forever.

(I may be exaggerating slightly for effect.)

I should note that this book won the American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published in 1997, proving that we are a people who deeply prefer that our Great Unknown have a happy Santa Claus face plastered on the front of it and that I am a definite outlier.

I haven't read his poetry, but Lynch's prose has some of the core flaws of a poet's character: a desire to see everything in essentialist terms, a weakness for metaphor, and a sense that things must be intrinsically connected because they come together in his life. When he attempts to be logical, he excludes middles with abandon and assumes his conclusions with breathtaking speed. When he's writing about solid, physical things he's much stronger; when he's making special pleas on behalf of his faith or his profession -- which he does a lot -- he's duller and was the source of many eye-rolls from my vicinity.

Since Undertaking is a collection of essays, each with a different focus, that means that some essays will be to particular readers' tastes -- mine, for example -- and others will be filled with dull pap that threatens to overflow and soak that reader's clothes with pure treacle. Again, I may slightly exaggerate.

In the end, Undertaking has not as much as I hoped about being an undertaker -- I was particularly disappointed that Lynch didn't dig into what it's like to bury people he knows over the course of decades in a small town, what it feels like to be that important to a town's life and yet inevitably left over on one side of the people's daily lives. (He does allude to this now and again, but he doesn't seem to want to get personal in Undertaking, to describe how he really feels about his life, so it stays on the surface.) Lynch probably mentions his divorce -- without any details as to why and how, though I can make my own guesses, since I certainly wouldn't want to live without anyone like Lynch for a course of years -- as often as he does embalming.

If you like to believe that the stars are God's daisy chain, then The Undertaking is the book about life in a funeral home for you. If you're made of any tougher material, you will likely be moderately disappointed, as I was.

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