In Too Deep

Book Review

The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories 

by Ethan Rutherford

Ecco, an IMprint of Harper Collins, 2013.


I love me some Ethan Rutherford.

I haven’t anticipated the publication of a book with as much impatience as “The Peripatetic Coffin” in a good, long while. 

The first story I read by Ethan Rutherford was “John, For Christmas” in “Ploughshares,” one of this country’s best literary magazines. The story ran 9,000 words. My thought, before reading the story: “Who does this guy think he is writing a 9,000 word story and then, like, publishing it?” 

Then I read the story, and now I’m
a believer in it. A middle-aged couple whose marriage is rocky learns that their unstable son, John, will be driving through a snowstorm to visit them for Christmas. John’s arrival is not a welcome one; in fact it is as unsettling and looming as the blizzard. John’s last visit ended with a violent act. In the interim, John’s father, Thomas, has developed a romantic interest in Sarah, a young woman who rents a garage apartment. Meanwhile, Thomas must put down an alpaca named Zachary. Here’s the thing: the story is densely packed with "rhyming action" (to borrow Charles Baxter’s term).Paragraphs and motifs repeat in subtle ways, and Rutherford proves himself adept at his use of the objective correlative. What if you were a parent of a child you felt should be put down, and the owner of an alpaca you must put down but wish you mustn’t? 

These moral binds prevail throughout the collection. In the titular story, a group of Confederate soldiers volunteer to man one of the earliest submarines – a peripatetic coffin – despite knowing their campaign will end in destruction. 

 "In August she arrived; in August she sank. In August she rose; in October she sank, only to be salvaged and mobilized again. Every day we board a contraption that has killed 13 men, including its inventor, on test runs alone. Every night we site the picket ships, set a course, and practice maneuvers. Our purpose is comically straightforward: steer undetected to the mouth of the harbor, sink the largest Union frigate we can ram, hope we are not destroyed in the explosion, and crank ourselves back to shore. To call us brave would imply that we’ve thought
this through.”

Rutherford’s stories are adept at finding the humor in humorless situations. His story “Camp Winnesaka” serves as a pastiche or homage to Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” Your humble book reviewer happens to find “The School” one of the best short stories of the last 50 years, and so it was with some trepidation that your humble book reviewer read the first paragraph of Rutherford’s story. “The thing is, we were worried about enrollment.” Uh-oh. Barthelme’s tone – “Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see…” – came to mind immediately. Yet Ethan Rutherford holds such range in his tone, and such strength and confidence in his abilities as a writer, that any reservations
quickly fade. 

How great is it when something you’ve waited for pays off big? How often does it occur? Thanks to Mr. Rutherford for providing such a delight. 


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