Donald Lystra channels Salinger in new coming-of-age novel


Donald Lystra is on a roll. His new book, “Searching for Van Gogh,” continues his successful journey as a late-in-life writer who, after working a full career as an electrical engineer, began writing prose.

Lystra, 78, is the author of “Season of Water and Ice” and “Something That Feels Like Truth,” which both won Michigan Notable Book awards, making his presence as an accomplished writer known.

“I was pleased to be honored. It was the high point of my literary career,” he said.

I talked with Lystra from his home in Florida. He splits his time between Florida and northwest Michigan to escape “brutal winters.”

His new novel is set in Grand Rapids in 1963. It follows an 18-year-old man and a young woman trying to discover who they are in that era of prosperity and calamity.

“For Americans, 1963 was the first real post-World War II societal shock for our generation and our country,” Lystra said. “We were hopeful, energetic and at times prosperous. All of a sudden, we were faced with turbulence from the civil rights upheaval, war and, of course, the assassination” of President John F. Kennedy.

Lystra throws two young adults into this milieu: Nathan, a recent high school graduate from Detroit who’s working a factory job and looking for his path in life, and Audrey, another transplant who is in survival mode both emotionally and financially.

He thought about setting the story in a big city like Los Angeles or New York, but they didn’t feel right, so he decided on Grand Rapids.

“I knew Grand Rapids very well. I spent the first 12 years of my life there. In 1963, I returned to work at a Fisher Body plant as part of the General Motors Institute program,” he said.

Nathan lives in a boarding house on Fulton Street across from John Ball Park, exactly where Lystra  lived for six months in 1963. Audrey stays in a fleabag hotel, works at a lunch counter and gives visiting businessmen walking tours of historic Grand Rapids while shadowing classes at the Kendall College of Art and Design.

The sense of place that Lystra captures exemplifies his strength in storytelling. Sixty years ago, Grand Rapids wasn’t the dynamic city we know today. It was right on the verge of urban decay, and that’s the environment in which Nathan and Audrey meet on the bank of the Grand River, where Nathan, a rank beginner, is painting an abandoned furniture factory. The pair’s spontaneous meeting results in a friendship and a nascent love story as they go about their lives.

There are a couple of interesting and uneasy road trips shared by the pair where we learn about their tense family lives, which both have fled.

Audrey and Nathan’s relationship is fraught with natural sexual tension and emotional baggage from their pasts, which we learn more about during the road trips. Despite their flaws, they support each other in the face of continuous disappointments.

“Searching for Van Gogh” is a story that J.D. Salinger would’ve written — one with an outcome that isn’t totally satisfactory. Lystra likely wrote this novel for adults, but it will also resonate with today’s youth, who are searching for their paths in a changing society.

My biggest question for Lystra was, “Why Van Gogh?” He gave a thoughtful answer I didn’t expect.

“I was inspired by the arc of Van Gogh’s life and how after a tragic life, years after his death, he became well known,” he said. “I wanted my character to be inspired by that and the body of literature he left behind in his letters.”

Lystra likes where he is in life. He had been a successful engineer and a partner at a firm until a bout of severe illness, after which he sold his shares and went to work for the University of Michigan.

“The opportunity opened up my life, and I actually started to write,” he said.

Lystra is about 200 pages into another novel about “a man who is middle-aged going through the travails of being middle-aged.”

“I don’t want to abandon it,” he said.

‘Searching for Van Gogh’

By Donald Lystra

Omena Hills Press, 272 pages, $17.99 (paperback)


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