Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Some Are So Good, Pete Read Them Twice


Alternately funny, menacing, and deeply empathetic, the wildly inventive stories in Ethan Rutherford's The Peripatetic Coffin mark the debut of a powerful new voice in contemporary fiction

Worried about waning enrollment, the head counselor of the world's worst summer camp leads his campers on a series of increasingly dubious escapades in an effort to revive their esprit de corps. A young boy on a sailing vacation with his father comes face-to-face with a dangerous stranger, and witnesses a wrenching act of violence. Parents estranged from their disturbed son must gird themselves for his visit, even as they cannot face each other. And in the dazzling title story, the beleaguered crew of the first Confederate submarine embarks on their final, doomed mission during the closing days of the Civil War.

Whether set aboard a Czarist-era Russian ship locked in Arctic ice, on a futuristic whaling expedition whose depredations guarantee the environmental catastrophe that is their undoing, or in a suburban basement where two grade-school friends articulate their mutual obsessions, these strange, imaginative, and refreshingly original stories explore the ways in which we experience the world: as it is, as it could be, and the dark contours that lie between.

Pete says:
"George Saunders has already made his mark this year with his best-selling collection of short stories called The Tenth of December. Now here comes another stunning collection called The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford. The titular story concerns the ill-fated, experimental submarine 'Hunley,' whose Confederate crew desperately tries to keep their tiny sub sea-worthy against a mighty Union blockade. It couldn't have been a pleasant experience to ride along on a cramped, leaky, hot vessel knowing that prior missions resulted in the deaths of all aboard. 

Another sea story takes place aboard the Saint Anna, an exploratory ship that's stuck in arctic ice while trying to locate speedier sea routes. One year passes, then 18 months. And then things begin to get really crazy. My favorite story in this collection was 'Summer Boys.' Two best friends start the summer playing sports, riding bikes, having sleepovers, and all things six-graders do for fun. But at summer's end one of them has a sexual awakening of sorts, and the other -- not quite ready for the changes to come -- has a big decision to make. This one I read twice; it was that good.

An additional story of note is 'Camp Winnesaka,' the craziest, most dysfunctional summer camp around. I'm sure the kids there had the time of their lives -- at least the ones who survived. And finally, a dark story called 'The Broken Group,' a terrifying story I believe is about the breaking apart of a family. I'll have to read this one twice as well. (Critical update: I did read it again but still don't get it. But what can you do?)"

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