To read Ethan Rutherford’s The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories is to give oneself over to an improbable series of events which are immensely absorbing. At the same time that these stories are unbelievable, several are based on truth. In these particular stories, Rutherford has written in a sense, a modern history book—timeless depictions of the struggle of survival—and he’s done it with the sort of care we reserve for tragedy victims. His stories not only shed light on our past, but span the present and the future, and ultimately leave the reader wondering, “My God. Where are we?”
The recent marathon tragedy in Boston could be a potential setting for one of Rutherford’s stories, which tend to focus on events that don’t end until its subjects have waited as long as one can wait, and are at the end of their journey, not for better, but for worse. He might describe a runner at the 26th mile, finally finishing the race, but overcome by blood and carnage and futility. It would be poetic and epic. Such is the nature of the stories in this unforgettable debut book. Rutherford has found a crack in today’s literature, a space where something moving could be done, and let the light shine in.
Not all of the collection’s stories are of historical nature, but the fictional accounts of true historical expeditions are the most vividly narrated of the collection. The title story is about H.L. Hunley, the first confederate submarine commissioned for combat in the Civil War, from the perspective of crew member Ward Lumpkin. Lumpkin has the job of hand cranking the submarine—imagine a 39-foot sub, with no ventilation or mode of communication, being hand-powered by its crew members. At this point in time, even testing subs under water was incredibly risky. They didn’t always come back up, and when that happened, people drowned, the boat was pulled back up from the bottom of the harbor, and a new set of volunteers got to try again.
The first strokes of the book tell everything you need to know about this young author and what’s to come:
The sound of iron walls adjusting to the underwater pressure around you was like the sound of improbability announcing itself: a broad, deep, awake-you-from-your-stupor kind of salvo. The first time we heard it, we thought we were dead; the second time we heard it, we realized we were.
Rutherford explains himself as having researched his topics enough to begin the stories, but not so much as to block the way for his imagination to take over the fictional story. But unless he has a depth of personal knowledge of various types of ships, he must have also done a great deal of maritime research to fill in the details of being aboard a submarine as well an offshore schooner and a modern cruising sailboat. In “The Saint Anna,” he tells the story of a ship that attempted the Northwest Passage, before it was opened up for travel. The ship gets stuck in the ice. For years. In these situations, Rutherford gets inside the tragedy and the sheer panic of the narrator. He offers a modern reflection on the repercussions of our presence on earth. When the trapped crew ventures onto the ice and sees an opening for the first time, and seals in the water, they begin to shoot. “We’re giddy and trigger-happy. It’s like shooting balloons tied to a fence. If one is too far out on the grease ice to retrieve, we shoot anyway and leave it.”
Rutherford has the capacity to make the reader’s pulse race, wondering what will happen next, even when it’s obvious. At the same time, humor is not out of bounds and is, in fact, woven naturally into some of the more absurd situations.
Meanwhile, the stories that are not re-imaginings of history are stories about friendship, parenthood and marriage. They are about how people handle the situations that life provides. They are about the smallness of humankind and the largeness we feel in our moments on this planet. To drive that point home, the last story, “Dirwhals!” is a futuristic story about an animal called a dirwhal that has been hunted to near extinction in the desert in combat vehicles, “shipper-tanks,” for their use as a source of energy, reminiscent of early whalers or more recent oil tycoons.
Out in the desert, activists attempt to protect the species, while young men on contract seek to strike the last of the riches. The animals could be imagined as something like a manatee; sweet and innocent. Although on further investigation, they might be modeled after the narwhal, which is hunted for its ivory. The important difference is that dirwhals actually live in the sand, not the ocean. Rutherford employs his impressive knack of fooling us into thinking he actually experienced something no one has ever experienced. He describes the vehicle as such: “At four RPMs, the engine roar of the Halcyon is deafening; at six it’s like confusion opening in your skull.”
This well-crafted, stunning collection, more than anything else feels in the end like a comment on our existence on Earth. When the hunters finally reach their prey in “Dirwhals!” and begin the massacre, they know they will be granted not only success and payment, but the opportunity to finally leave the desert and return home. Yet our narrator is filled with regret. “For two years we’d thought ourselves the victims of history, but as we stood at the rail and marveled at the live sand below us, we’d become something else: a punctuation mark; the coffin’s nail; agents of endurance, memorable only to ourselves.”