cover image A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Stories

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Stories

Daniel Mason. Little, Brown, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-316-47763-5

Mason’s melodious, introspective collection (after The Winter Soldier) locates startling depth in a series of engrossing character studies. In the opener, “Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw,” a thoughtful stevedore in 1820s England becomes a champion fighter (“Burke spent a good deal of time wondering... about how a hitter could be a good man”). In “The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I,” a curious pharaoh conducts cruel experiments on children to solve the mysteries of human behavior. In other stories, a desperate mother strives to save her severely asthmatic son in coal-choked Victorian London, a doctor loses his very self to a strange doppelgänger, and a French telegraph operator deep in the Amazon finds a strange sort of companionship. In “The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace,” Mason imagines a scientist’s thoughts while he waits in vain for a reply to a letter he’s written to Darwin outlining his ideas about natural selection. The title story is a standout, rendered in the form of a madman’s ravings, in which a gifted writer is compelled to obsessively catalogue every poignant piece of human existence. Mason is a brilliant wordsmith (“he looked upon the world, and what he saw was not life, but life transforming, sprouting sharper fangs and nectaries of ever sweeter nectar, taking flight as color danced kaleidoscopically across her wings”), and respectful of his readers by not giving away too much. Each story is informed and deepened by scientific inquisitiveness, and rewards readers with understated philosophical insight. This showcases Mason’s wide range and mastery of lyrical precision. (May)