In Ruffin’s new collection, men, boats, and bodies of water collide unexpectedly, with results that are often humorous, violent, or both.
Most of the eight stories contained in this collection—really, seven, along with an excerpt from Ruffin’s novel Pompeii Man (2002)—are largely set, as the title indicates, around the Gulf Coast. The title story is an exception: it’s a loose and irreverent retelling of the story of Noah building the ark, from the perspective of one of his neighbors, who isn’t terribly thrilled with the idea of dying in a flood. Given the casual tone in which the story is narrated, there’s more than a little rural America here—Scripture reimagined as a kind of barroom tall tale. Fishing, whether for sport or for one’s livelihood, plays a large part in several other stories, and in some, stories nestle within stories. “Mystery in the Surf at Petit Bois” and “The Hands of John Merchant” convey the details of friendship between men with unpleasant glimmerings beneath the surface, and in “The Drag Queen and the Southern Cross,” Ruffin moves from a comedy of manners to an account of fanaticism and violence aboard a shrimp boat. (That’s the Drag Queen of the title, its name a reference to the work it does rather than the more well-known meaning of the phrase.) In it, a trio working on a boat take on a temporary employee whose religious devotion ultimately gives way to something more sinister. It’s memorably unpredictable.
These stories exploring how life on the water affects everyday people make for amiable reading, but they become most compelling when Ruffin taps into the bleaker impulses found below a more cordial facade.