A debut collection of eight stories that run the literary gamut, from seafaring parables to domestic realism, with the quality of the stories varying as well.
The opening, title story relates the adventures of “the first underwater vessel commissioned for combat by the Confederate State of America,” a Civil War submarine “that has failed—spectacularly—almost every meaningful test it has been given...the underwater equivalent of a bicycle strapped to a bomb with the intention of pedaling it four miles through hostile waters to engage an infinitely better equipped enemy….” “The Saint Anna” offers another unlikely seafaring tale about a ship ice-bound in the Arctic during the last gasps of czarist Russian rule, leaving those onboard split over whether to stay with the ship, where they’ve been trapped for a couple of years, or try to walk to wherever on the ice: “Each group is conscious of what abandonment means: they are leaving us to our death and we are letting them walk to theirs.” Like a Beckett fable of nothingness and bleak faith, the story suggests that “[t]here’s no explanation of what’s happening to us except that it’s happening.” The final story, “Dirwhals!,” replaces endless ice with endless sand, and unbearable cold with unbearable heat, in its diary of a man who has fled his family and abandoned his sister to serve on “a slow moving factory, an ungainly vessel that serves as both a hunting ship and a one-stop bio-processing plant,” as if Melville’s Ishmael has found himself sandlocked. Amid stories that inhabit parallel dimensions of history, in a geography of the imagination, many of the rest are contemporary family realism, often involving a boy of the same generation as the author undergoing some sort of rite of passage. In “Camp Winnesaka,” a battle between rival summer camps escalates into rockets and casualties, with a subtext that evokes Weapons of Mass Destruction. The longest story, “John, For Christmas,” is the most melodramatic, as a troubled adult son exposes the strains in his parents’ seemingly strong marriage.
The author seems well-read, and he aspires to the highest literary standards, but some of these stories seem more significant in their inspiration than their execution.