When I started reading Ethan Rutherford’s book of fiction, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (on sale May 7), at first I was all “These stories are crazy but how does a story about a Civil War submarine get into the same collection as a surreal story about a camp counselor? But that’s cool.” And now that I’ve finished the book I’m all “These stories are outrageous and I can’t believe I questioned their cohesiveness. The story about the early 20th century Arctic sail totally relates to the futuristic story about hunting in the desert.”
There’s so much to say about this book. I picked it up in the first place because I saw that Sloane Crosley mentioned it on Twitter, and I pretty much agree with everything SC says. After reading the title story, about being a member of the crew aboard a hand-powered Confederate submarine in the Civil War, which was an exercise in waiting to sink, I was sort of baffled. In a good way.
Ethan Rutherford has the gift of writing authentically about experiences in history in a way that is also very current. His characters don’t really narrate in the dialogue of the times, and while that might piss you off, I thought it was great and didn’t at all take away from my willing suspension of disbelief in the narrative. It just helped me relate to being there in that small, sweaty submarine that may or may not make it back to the surface from its test dive.
[Side note: was the title supposed to remind me of Edward Gorey’s Epiplectic Bicycle? Anyone?]
Here’s an example from “The Peripatetic Coffin” of how he puts you in the moment. The submarine is in battle when this happens: “We glide in reverse for just long enough to wonder whether we’ve attached the line to the firing mechanism correctly, and then there’s an explosion so deafening it’s like tasting sound.”
Some, but not all of his stories are about similarly historic expeditions that involve being trapped, survival and exploration. Others are about survival from a more abstract, emotional angle. Parents await a visit from their son who they do their best to love despite his efforts to prove himself unlovable. A couple is left in the aftermath of a violent mugging and it’s unclear how their marriage will remain intact. Two adolescent boys can’t quite figure out whether they’re stuck together as friends or trapped in separate lives that will never truly align.
One of the best parts of this book is that several of the stories are nautical. Oh, that doesn’t appeal to you? Fine, sailorly zest aside, you don’t have to be a yachtswoman to be fascinated by what two years in a ship frozen at sea is like and to feel like you learned something about the ocean or the planet.
Rutherford is clearly a history buff and in the last story—an imagined future where Americans hunt an almost-extinct species called dirwhals that live in the sand, for energy–his true environmentalism and perspective on our place in history is not to be mistaken. He has a reverence for explorers and early strides in technology, but points to the absurdity of these missions we’ve taken. Building a hunk of metal and submerging it in the sea is gonna lead to death. Sailing a ship into the freezing Arctic is hopeless. Killing the last of a rare species whose meat can be turned into valuable energy does not propel us further into the future, it shortens our existence on this planet, and only serves us in the present.
There’s a lot of food for thought in these stories. I raced through them to find out the inevitable conclusions whose inevitability made them no less devastating. Rutherford is one of those authors I’m going to search for now, hoping to find a story published here and there, waiting impatiently for his next book.
Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.
Image from EthanRutherford.net
Top image via GoodReads