The Denver Post
January 27, 2002 By Dylan Foley
Stephen Byler's debut novel, "Searching for Intruders," presents a landscape where the characters are physically and emotionally damaged. There are battered sons, mutilated wives, horribly burned men and others who don't want to live. In this world, Byler explores the effect of a violent society on a contemplative drifter. Enter the sensitive male in literature.
In a modern spin on Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Byler follows Wilson Hues as he travels across the country and tries to make sense of the emotional and physical violence he experienced in his childhood and young-adult life. Weaving together 11 stories and 11 vignettes into a novel, Byler develops a world where relationships are cut off and lovers and friends only half communicate. Through Byler's beautiful prose, Wilson struggles with his emotional development and grapples with the meaning of being a man.
Similar to the vignettes on Nick Adams from "In Our Time," the short segments in "Searching for Intruders" move the story along. They detail Wilson's father's cruelty to his children, the father's horrible death and the murder of a friend's parents.
Byler follows how Wilson's childhood trauma affects his relationships with his wife and a later girlfriend. The novel starts with Wilson and his wife, Melody, living in a tiny New York apartment. A cockroach invasion deals a crippling blow to their relationship when Wilson is unable to deal with it.
Byler's spare and clear writing allows the reader to see Wilson is unable to commit violence, even when it is humane. When he mortally wounds a deer with his car, he can't put the animal out of its misery.
The stories and the vignettes strip away the layers of trauma Wilson has encountered - physical violence from his father and emotional violence from other men. Wilson deals with a misogynistic soccer coach and a greasy swindler, examples of the cruelty men inflict on each other.
Melody has suffered as well. She is a former small-town beauty queen. "At age sixteen, she became the Poultry Queen," writes Byler. "The only difference was that there were chickens chained next to her on the parade float, chickens instead of Holstein cows." Melody's past and her hatred of her own beauty lead her to a grotesque, self-destructive act.
Byler's writing has been championed by the novelist David Plante, who has referred to his style as "masculine tenderness." Wilson is more a symbol of modern man - torn between the social pressure to be strong and use force in all situations, and the personal desire to be sensitive and caring.
In one telling event, Wilson confronts a man who is menacing his girlfriend on the side of the highway. In Byler's compelling setting, the couple's relationship is ambiguous. "She hits me all the time," whines the man. Wilson steps back from the looming violence, and the woman stays with her brutal boyfriend.
Byler takes Wilson from New York to Idaho, and then to the rural hills of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Along the way, Wilson meets men with guns and a burn victim, and falls in love with a dying woman. In meeting Alethea, who is battling cancer, Wilson finds a more mature love. The sensual Alethea helps move his self-awareness forward.
Wilson evolves from a damaged young man in his mid-20s to a contemplative adult in his 30s, coming to terms with his life and how his past has affected him. By moving back and forth through time in the interlocking stories, Byler succeeds in looking at the roots of Wilson's pain and how he addresses it.
In the title story, Wilson moves back to his native Pennsylvania with Alethea. "This was while Alethea's cancer was taking over again, but before we realized it," writes Byler. One night, they hear sounds that they believe come from a burglar. Wilson goes outside to investigate. It is only in retrospect that he realizes that the intruders on their happy domestic situation were spiritual - they were the old traumas and Alethea's cancer coming back.
Where Hemingway drew characters that were black and white, Byler operates in shades of gray. For Wilson, there is no map to follow to attain a meaningful manhood. He has to cut his way through a hostile jungle, full of angry images of men. In the end, Wilson will make the choice to damn society, to go his own way and to be his own man.
Dylan Foley is a book reviewer from Brooklyn, N.Y.
(SEARCHING FOR INTRUDERS: A Novel in Stories By Stephen R. Byler, Morrow, 256 pages, $23.95)