Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories" by Ethan Rutherford

I stumbled upon Ethan Rutherford's amazingly powerful story collection in a bookstore. How can you resist a book with a title like this?

After reading these stories, I realized this collection has far more to offer than an intriguing title. Some of the stories in Rutherford's debut collection pack a tremendous punch; in fact, I'd wager to say a few of these stories are some of the most powerful I've read in quite some time.

The title story is based on the misadventures of the crew of the first Confederate submarine during the Civil War. It's not a subject I would have ever thought would be intriguing for a short story, yet in Rutherford's hands, you sense the claustrophobia of the vessel, the desperation of the crew to make a difference in a war their side appears to be losing more rapidly day by day, and the courage of knowing their efforts could lead to the ultimate sacrifice. Camp Winnesaka is told from the perspective of the head counselor of a summer camp, who leads his campers into some potentially dangerous situations in an effort to reignite their enthusiasm and keep the camp's financial prospects rosy. In A Mugging, a couple struggles with the aftermath of a mugging in vastly different ways.

My three favorite stories in the collection were the most emotionally affecting. In John, for Christmas, a couple struggles with the toll their emotionally disturbed adult son has had on their marriage and their own psyches, in the midst of an impending blizzard and various other issues. The Broken Group recounts a less than successful sailing trip taken by a father and son, in which the son realizes his father's humanness in a way he never expected. And Summer Boys, which completely knocked me out, explored the sometimes-obsessive friendship of two young boys and the fragile innocence of youth.

What prevented this collection from being completely satisfying was Rutherford's over-reliance on stories about men stranded on ships in the middle of nowhere, on what appear to be hopeless voyages. Although I really enjoyed the title story, by the time the third story about men on a boat searching for an elusive creature rolled around, I wished that the collection had more stories like Summer Boys and some of my other favorites, and less on ships.

That criticism aside, I was blown away by Rutherford's writing talent and the majority of the stories in this collection. He is certainly a writer you need to experience, and I can't wait to see where his career will take him. I know I'll be watching.

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