I’ve always loved--loved--the Ron Carlson story “What We Were Trying To Do. You may have heard it on NPR, too. It’s about the first people under siege who tried to pour oil on the invading forces: they don’t heat the oil, everyone gets slippery and messy but the invasion continues. The lesson: next time, we’ll use boiling oil…
Alan DeNiro’s “Our Byzantium” is not purely silly the way Carlson’s story is, but it has that perfect pitch deadpan. I was hooked from the first line: “In your absence, the Byzantines infiltrate our city.”
The story goes on with a double plot-line: one plot trying to figure out how it came to be that the Byzantines are invading at all (did they escape the fall of Constantinople [in 1453, DeNiro helpfully “reminds” us] and lie dormant in the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania for centuries?) and one plot about how “you” left Eastern Pennsylvania, driving all the way out west to Pittsburgh to visit “Todd.”
Alone, either plot might be fine. The Byzantium plot could be a good, funny story, akin to Carlson’s. The story about how the narrator tries to figure out why he is more attracted to the elusive and unavailable “you” than to the present, kind, and pretty Jerilynn (who has her own unavailable object of desire) might have been a sweet tale about our fickle hearts.
Together, they are magical, poignant, and, because of the constant threat of violence from marauding Byzantines, not too sentimental.
And then, there is this lovely moment near the end. “Yeats had it wrong,” DeNiro writes. “This is a country for old men.” I love a nice allusion and when a buried one emerges and enriches, well, then I’m doubly pleased.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees--
Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.