Call Me Ahab

Written by Anne Finger
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

These nine short stories mix fact and fiction, and most of them concern historical characters with physical disabilities. One of the best invites us to imagine a half mad Vincent Van Gogh struggling to survive in 20th-century New York while he waits to receive Social Security benefits. Van Gogh’s predicament feels so vividly real that it is possible to suspend disbelief and hope he and his art will survive this time around. In another story, our hero is Goliath, mocked by his fellow Philistines for his huge size. Unfortunately, the reader is led to expect that we will see Goliath confront David, and this tale fizzles out in a disappointing way. Historically, we are all over the place. Rosa Luxembourg turns up in New York in the 1990s. Shakespeare’s Gloucester makes a visit in roughly the same time period. Helen Keller tries to break free of being a desexualized role model. The question of how the disabled person relates to society and is regarded by others recurs. When one is different from those around one, how is it possible to avoid being treated with either subtle or blunt dehumanization?

Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, this collection brings together works that are more thought experiments than conventional fictions. Nobody fits easily into society, but each character has a certain resilience. The stories are written in a clear and graceful prose style, laden with irony, occasionally including historical quotations. Call Me Ahab does not deliver much conventional, linear storytelling, but it is thought provoking.