Three sea stories set in different places and times — “The Peripatetic Coffin,” “The Saint Anna” and “Dirwhals!”— link this fine debut collection. The stories serve as compass points on a map of desolation and isolation.
The book’s first story, the title story, concerns a submarine crew preparing to attack the Union naval blockade of Charleston harbor. A second sea story appears midway through the book. Set a half-century after the Confederate submarine’s sinking, “The Saint Anna” dramatizes the fate of Russian seamen aboard “a gaff-rigged schooner” drifting helplessly in Arctic ice. “Dirwhals!,” the book’s final story, occurs approximately in the year 2228 aboard “the shipper-tanker Halcyon” in the ocean-like dunes of “the Desert Gulf of Mexico.”
In each story, the adventurers’ growing hopelessness and claustrophobia lead to “grievances that burrow and sprout into meadows of resentment.” “There are no days” near the North Pole, complains Piotr Bayev, the narrator of “The Saint Anna.” “The feeling is that time itself has become unmoored.” The narrator of “Dirwhals!” describes journeying over endless sand dunes searching for dirwhals, an energy source. “We seem to be following a circuitous path conjured by a divining stick.” What can be known of the world when time and space are confused? The dislocation leads one to think that the Halcyon, the submarine H.L. Hunley or similar moving coffins will entrap humans for centuries.
Rutherford’s other stories, except perhaps one, are equally absorbing. Set in the present, they take place in recognizable surroundings such as suburban homes or a summer camp. In “Summer Boys,” two adolescents are bewildered by the mutual need they have for each other. In “John, for Christmas,” a man leaves his wife while their increasingly unstable son drives through a snowstorm to see them. In “A Mugging,” a husband’s mental health deteriorates after he and his wife are robbed. In the harrowing “The Broken Group,” a boy and his father sailing off of Vancouver Island survive a storm only to meet another kind of fury on a deserted island. “Camp Winnesaka,” the least successful story, no doubt added to the collection for levity, concerns an artifact stolen from a summer camp.
What matters, of course, are the good stories where characters’ decisions alter their lives.
This is a beautiful book about human suffering, about human quandaries. It is also about bravery, history, love, longing, scientific and sexual exploration and the seasons of the year, principally summer and winter. A peripatetic coffin can, like the H.L. Hunley, be a “sealed iron tub,” or it can be a schooner trapped in sea ice, or even the adult mind recalling what happened between two boys many years before.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.