Daniel A. Hoyt seems to have a fetish for the unsatisfied. Reading his first book, Then We Saw the Flames, is something like riding through an old-time dark ride as Hoyt guides us through thirteen portraits of men, women, and children struggling to find satisfaction and meaning in their existence, or, sometimes more importantly, simply in the moments of their lives. Sometimes, the subjects break from their portraits and find the path with us and walk away from their scenes and find that meaning. Sometimes, they find solace and acceptance in the dissatisfaction. And sometimes, the lights shut out on the scene and we move on to the next as the subjects continue to stumble around in the dark.
However, in all cases, Hoyt shows mastery akin to that of a fine chef; not only does he combine the right ingredients in each offering, but he also selects the right tools for the job. There is an understanding and a harmony between the voice and the subject matter in each piece; words are carefully selected and placed, and at the end, there are very few leftovers. Each story fills us in a way that only real literature can. And while each story is very different in its tone, subjects, and what happens to them at the end, they're all clearly from the same kitchen, and this signature is comforting.
The stories themselves, though, are not comforting. They are, after all, about the unsatisfied. Instead, they make us think about the way that we live our own lives. I hesitate to call Then We Saw the Flames a self-help book because that term carries a lot of stigmas and associations that I'd like to avoid in this review, but through the right lens, Hoyt has certainly created a work that we can compare our own lives to and say, "Look at this. If these people can find meaning in these moments of their lives, then so can I." If we look carefully, we can look at their dissatisfaction, or the way that they're treated, or the way they treat others, or what they do, or even what they eat. We can see the same patterns running through our own lives and we can say, "I don't want to be this anymore." And maybe, in a strange way, we can find comfort here after all.
If Dan does have this fetish for exploring the unsatisfied, we should be thankful that he's baring it for us. Everything here is momentary and fleeting; it all reveals itself in flashes of meaning that his characters can only glimpse at and try to hang on to. This works incredibly well in Dan's book because it's true of real life; maybe there isn't one over-arching meaning for our whole lives. We have to find it in these moments and live in them before the lights go out again, and we're taken to the next part of the ride. And when we get there, we have to find meaning there, too.