Doomed voyages form a common thread in Ethan Rutherford’s debut short story collection, though they don’t always take place at sea. Rutherford portrays human folly and desperation across a wide range of characters and settings. Even more impressively, he employs a number of different narrative styles. But whether it’s the historical sea tales of the title story and “The Saint Anna,” the gritty realism of “John, for Christmas” and “The Broken Group,” the high satire of “Camp Winnesaka,” or the dreamlike foreboding of “Summer Boys” and “A Mugging,” Rutherford consistently bores deep into the psyche of his characters, seeking the essential loneliness at the heart of the human condition.
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is “Dirwhals!,” which wrestles with these themes in a futuristic dystopia where a ship’s crew hunts sand worms across a great desert that was once the Gulf of Mexico (sort of like Melville by way of Frank Herbert). In one haunting passage, the narrator describes his surroundings in terms that could represent the emotional and psychological atmosphere throughout much of the book: “no perceivable seasons, weather that drives you into yourself, the illusion of unlimited space, shifting loyalties, petty grievances that burrow and sprout unexpectedly into meadows of resentment.”
No empathetic reader would blame any of Rutherford’s characters if they just gave up, accepted their seemingly inevitable fate, sat down and refused to move, come what may. They’re often trapped in situations they don’t control. Their leaders are feckless and irresponsible when they aren’t outright hostile. The threat of violence hangs perpetually in the air, and when it appears there is often no apparent rhyme or reason. Extended periods of isolation from society breed a kind of frenzied desire for human connection, but attempts to fulfill this yearning are usually doomed to haplessness or violence, or both.
And yet, hope—or something vital and indomitable enough to be its close cousin—springs eternal. Even in the face of all evidence, Rutherford’s characters go on. Perhaps it’s just survival instinct, or perhaps they just don’t see any better options. Each character reacts to his own set of circumstances (and yes, they’re all men, or boys, or at some befuddled state between the two). The narrator of “Dirwhals!” reflects on this dilemma toward the end of his tale:
Time passes; the ship never comes in; at a certain point the ruined narrative solidifies, the hidden smallness and stupidity of your ambition presents itself in toto, and there you are: a walking avatar of foreclosed possibility. It’s a dark understanding that one day is there like a weight on your neck. But nothing is written, and there’s room for surprise. Opportunity can hulk itself from the dunes at the very moment you least expect it.
So, although the collection contains a multitude of narrative styles, it’s the seafaring stories that anchor the book to its themes. It becomes impossible to read a story like “A Mugging,” which focuses on how a marriage fractures after a couple is assaulted and robbed, without thinking of the crew of the Saint Anna, trapped aboard their ice-bound ship, unable to escape the ugliness of their own actions, the bitterness they harbor against one another. Does the adolescent confusion of “Summer Boys” produce the troubled adulthood of “John, for Christmas,” and is this what leads young men to embark on doomed voyages?
The first line of dialogue in The Peripatetic Coffin comes from one of the crewmembers of the H.L. Hunley. “Desperation breeds invention,” he says. This simple statement could serve as a motto, not only for these short stories, but perhaps for our common human plight. We all know our end is coming, though we may not know the when or the how or the why. And in this way—if you'll excuse the morbid grandiosity—our very bodies are our own personal peripatetic coffins. Maybe the wonders of human invention spring from this underlying desperation, and maybe that’s sad. But it makes for some damn good stories.