Sunday with Zin: Monica Wood: Ernie’s Ark – Ballantine Books, 2002

Ernie’s building [the ark] is an act of desperation, of communion, of hope, of despair. It worked on many levels for me, which is why so many stories resulted from it. Ernie understands that the town will never be the same after what’s happened, so he’s determined to survive, whether he knows it consciously or not. It’s significant he doesn’t think twice about his ability to build the ark. My favorite line of the book is this one: “Ernie figured that Noah himself was a man of the soil and didn’t know spit about boatbuilding.”
— “A Conversation With Monica Wood,” appendix to Ernie’s Ark

Hello I am Zin! I went to a reading by Monica Wood for her memoir When We Were The Kennedys a few weeks ago (I wrote about her talk last week), and the prologue was lovely so I thought I would read some of her fiction! I am glad I did!

This collection is a set of closely linked stories set in the same mill town – it is called Abbott Falls and Wood calls it “a composite” of paper mill towns all over the country but it is clearly informed by her experience growing up in the Oxford-Rumford-Mexico area of Maine. It is used in Maine schools especially, because the kids can see how a writer treats a real setting! On her website there is a picture of an ark students in Scarborough built after they read the story!

There is a whole appendix of wonderful material at the end, including an interview with Bill Roorbach and a guide for reading groups! She did not plan to write a story collection, just the title story! She noticed a man walking a teeny-tiny dog, then she realized there were a lot of older men out walking teeny-tiny dogs, all the time, and finally realized they were widowers taking care of the dogs their wives had loved! And the story came from that single image! Then the collection came from that single story! That is quite a lot to get out of noticing one little thing!

She does not write a draft and then edit – “language itself is what leads me through the story” (I wonder if this is something like the process Ron Carlson used in his book about his Governor’s Ball story. Or maybe I just have Ron Carlson on the brain because my friend Marko Fong recently did a workshop with him). Then at the end she might have to throw away some stuff but she uses the language as a map!

She is adamant that this is NOT a novel! It is not a novel-in-stories, a form she does not really like! She would hate to have someone buy the book thinking it is a novel! And I agree, each story has a different sense to it. But they are very closely linked stories, and I am not really sure some of them work alone. The later stories get a lot of their impact from the reader knowing the characters and events from earlier stories! And some stories just go together! I think in particular “The Joy Business” and “Take Care Good Boy” require each other, and I am pretty sure for me “That One Autumn” works best when it follows “Ernie’s Ark.” And “The Temperature of Desire” might not be one of my favorites without the background of the preceding stories, but I am not sure, I can not really go back and find out! It was published in a literary magazine by itself, so someone thought it worked solo!

The Stories:

Ernie’s Ark

Ernie was an angry man. He felt his anger as something apart from him, like an urn of water balanced on his head, a precarious weight that affected his gait, the set of his shoulders, his willingness to move through a crowd. He was angry at the melon-faced CEO from New York City who had forced a strike in a paper mill all the way up in Maine – a decision made, Ernie was sure, in that fancy restaurant atop the World Trade Center where Ernie had taken his wife, Marie, for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary last winter, another season, another life. Every Thursday as he stood in line at Manpower Services to wait for his unemployment check he thought of that jelly-assed CEO – Henry John MCCoy, with his parted blond hair – yuucking it up at a table laid out in bleached linen and phony silver, figuring out all the ways he could cut a man off at the knees three weeks before retirement.

I think Ernie has good cause to be angry! On top of the strike which is holding up his pension, probably forever, his wife is dying and is in a hospital 35 miles away! He sees a newspaper story about an “installation contest” at the college, and builds an ark in his back yard! A man from the city tells him he is not zoned for an ark! It is such a charming story! Yet there is a point to it!

Everything fits: the installation competition, the wife, the city guy. The dog the city man has in his car, I am not so sure, but it fits ok, not quite as perfectly as the rest but well enough. When every thread works together like this, without anything feeling forced or jammed in there because “I need a character who will do this” or “I need to get him from here to there” a story tumbles, as I call it, under its own steam and is a pleasure to read!

This story was in the Winter 1998 issue of Glimmer Train and the 1999 Pushcart Prize anthology! And it made me cry!

At the Mercy

I am not a patient man. My daughter is reading poetry, aloud, in the seat next to me, because (she says) she has always loved poetry. Her mouth opens and closes over the words—wide, narrow, wide, narrow—which is either the way people read poetry aloud these days or a signal to me that she suspects I might be unfamiliar with words like urticant or sidereal, which I am. My daughter’s abiding love of poetry is one of many facts that I have not (she says) managed to apprehend about her character, either because I was never home (which is true) or didn’t give a sweet goddamn about the machinations of her inchoate soul. She says.

We always say there are two sides to every story, so here comes the other side! The melon-faced CEO who put the plant on strike has his own problems! It is a much more internal story, with less of a plot than “Ernie’s Ark” and it seems to me, while this man has troubles, they are of his own making! Still there are similarities! He too grew up on a small town, he was not born rich it seems! His wife left him and later died and he was in Japan at a meeting so could not attend her funeral and the daughter, 26, has never forgiven him. She sounds more like a petulant, if precocious, 15-year-old than a 26-year-old! She is a brat! But she has her own story too, I am sure! And father and daughter, two-by-two, are in a car for almost the whole story, which could be seen as similar to an ark!

In the material at the end of the book (there is an interview and even a study guide!) she says this was the biggest stretch for Wood, writing for a CEO. And maybe that is why, or maybe it is because he is a character it is hard to feel close to, or maybe it is the off note about the daughter, but I did not enjoy it as much as “Ernie’s Ark.” I might have liked to have read it first so I could read it without having Ernie peeking out! It was published in Confrontation under a different title (and she does not tell us and Confrontation does not list stories or authors in their archives so I do not know when or what title).

That One Autumn

And then? They no longer looked back on this season as the autumn when they lost their second child. This season – with its uneven temperatures and propensity for inspiring flight – they recalled instead as that one autumn when those awful people,that terrible pair, broke into the cabin. They exchanged one memory for the other…. This moment became the turning point – this moment and no other – when two long-married people decided to stay married, to succumb to the shape of the rest of their life, to live with things they would not speak of.

Marie, the same Marie in “Ernie’s Ark” – his wife – lay dying and thinks back to “That One Autumn” back in the early 70s. It was traumatic for many reasons! Their son left for Berkeley, and Marie miscarried a surprise pregnancy. She went up to their vacation cabin to be alone, hinting that maybe she was thinking about separation, and finds a girl squatter living there! The girl is not a nice girl! She has a switchblade! Her boyfriend is on the lam from robbing a couple of gas stations and he has gone to get something, for a day and a half, and she is not sure he is coming back, but he does! And that is too bad, because he ties Marie up! But he can not kill her! He tells the girl to kill her and the girl can not kill her either, they are bad kids but not killers! So they leave Marie tied to a chair, and she waits, knowing that Ernie will come up, he will miss her and will want to follow her even though he is not supposed to, she knows this in a way the girl did not know if her boyfriend was coming back! And this is the memory that replaces the miscarriage, because even though it was scary, it was also full of love!

The Temperature of Desire

Our father was a faithful man, and I miss him still, that machinist who loved scales, everything calibrated, quantified. He measured anger in ounces, surprise in feet, and happiness in degrees Celsius.
The happy scale, he called it….He died four weeks later, and we froze in that house for years. our mother never thawed – I don’t think there was a day when her personal mercury rose above a degree and a half – so it was left to me to pass Dad’s lessons on.

This one is amazing, and it covers the whole town just about! In fact, if I have a criticism it is that it is not very focused, there are many themes. But it is still truly wonderful! This story was previously published in Orchid, which I think is not in publication any longer.

It is told in first person by Dan Little; he is an electrician at the paper mill and is on strike. But he is also now working part-time as a city code officer so he is the guy from the city who tells Ernie he is not zoned for an ark! But it turns out he loves the ark! He also loves his younger brother, Tim. He pretty much raised Tim as father, because their father died right after Tim was born, when Dan was fifteen. So he is confused that Tim has chosen to cross the picket line and work at the plant as a replacement worker: “I taught my little brother how to read a micrometer and sharpen a drill bit, but also how to navigate a library, flip and omelette, tell a clean joke….It never occurred to me to include in Tim’s instruction the sin of crossing a picket line.” I have never belonged to a union or been caught up in an emotional strike, but I have seen on the news how it can get nasty, and we already have an idea from “At Their Mercy” of how angry people are! But Tim is only twenty, and has his own agenda. He wants to leave town, go somewhere else, be something else, and he needs money so that is why he crossed the picket line:

My brother’s crime was in wanting to get out so badly he’d step on his brothers’ necks to do it. It had cost him big, but he was willing to pay. That’s how much he didn’t want to end up like me. As much as it hurt me to know this, I couldn’t think of a blessed thing I wanted that bad, and a weird, vague, crushed part of me wished I did.

The story ends with them on a horrible rainy night with Tim on his way out of town, and they go to look at the ark and… well, you have to read the story!

When she gave her reading of When We Were the Kennedys, Wood said that she did not use autobiographical material in her novels and stories, but I think she does a little bit here, at least for the family structure! I remember her talking about an older sister who took care of her right after her father died and her mother was in a depression, so that is a similar kind of dynamic used for the Little brothers! It is not identical of course, but I can see the roots of inspiration there! It is most interesting she chooses the older brother (or in her case sister) point of view, as if thanking her sister for all she did, showing that she knows!

The Joy Business

This one felt like exposition or a connecting chapter (and when I read “Take Care Good Boy” I realized it is!). It is third person but with Cindy as the point-of-view character. She is the ex-wife Dan was talking about! With the flower shop – that is The Joy Business! She is remarried to Bruce, the sculptor! Yes, that sculptor! The one that won the prize that Ernie saw when he got the idea to build his boat! She is now stepmother to his two children. Bruce is a creep, cheating on her as he did on his first wife with every student he can get his hands on, son Kenny is the typical too-good-for-this teen, and Francine is the daughter who clings to Cindy and is the reason she will not leave Bruce but demands he stop being such a jerk! But the story just kind of shows us who the characters are, it does not really go anywhere!

Visitors

This refers extensively back to “That One Autumn” and I found it quite disappointing – I am so sad to say that! Marie has just died, and the girl from the cabin shows up on the day of her funeral to apologize but does not know she has died. I am very willing to go where a story wants to lead but this was just stretching credulity a little too much! We also meet the son, James, who had just gone off to Berkeley when the incident happened, in fact it starts with him in California, and his ex-wife, coming to the funeral. There are some intense interactions of course, but James felt two-dimensional, and even Ernie did not feel like the man who built the ark in his back yard! I was almost angry because as a follow-up to those two stories I almost felt like this almost ruined them retroactively! I would rather have enjoyed the pleasant afterglow of the previous stories rather than this continuation of events! But it is ok, because if you just keep reading you find out why this story is here in the collection! It is not one of the “stars” but it has an important supporting role!

Take Care Good Boy

Now he saw this place as an apology. Money had changed hands, his mother had fled, and Ellery was the kind of man who would have felt sorry for the good boy left behind. And if he’d known about the good girl, the four-year-old birl his mother hadn’t mentioned? Something twisted inside him, a physical hurt which he took for the spiritual waking he had so wished for. If this place was an appology, then Francine deserved it, too.

This story was previously published in Yankee.

Did you know that when Thoreau did his little wilderness visit, his mother and sister supplied most of his meals and did his laundry? And he mooched off Emerson and his wife for his other meals! So the myth of self-reliance is a bit overblown! Kenny Love, the main character of this story, is the son of sculptor Bruce and stepmother Cindy, as we were introduced in “The Joy Business.” Maybe that is why that story did not go anywhere, it was exposition for this story! I do wish they were combined, because together in a longer story, maybe a novella. At first this story seems to be skimming the surface, but once it settles in, it turns into something really special! Kenny finished high school a semester early (which seems to me a little like some plot convenience rather than anything organic to the story, I am afraid, but it is not glaring) and was going to go to Harvard the following Fall, but he finds out he has been bequeathed a cabin (another cabin! Another ark?) by a relative he only met once, a great-uncle, from his mother. He decides to play Thoreau though his father is enraged, and tells him he must fulfill his “obligation to Harvard” and that he is more of a math guy than a nature freak! And his sister makes fun of him and tells him about Thoreau and the women that made Walden Pond possible! And at first it seems they are right, he does not really know what he is doing, but he finds some old calendars his great-uncle kept, with a lot of notations about nature and other things – like for his one visit at age eight there was a note that he was a “good boy”, but no indication why the man thought that! He finds a diner within walking distance and becomes friendly with the waitress, a friend of his great-uncle! Then… well, I do not want to tell you everything, but he really does grow up, he discovers some family truths, and it is quite nice how it happens! He outstrips his parents in maturity and character! At the end I had the feeling he has now outgrown his self-absorbed teenager self and is ready to be a “good man.”

Solidarity Is Not A Floor

Francine grasps all this, fleetingly, in the grayish privacy of her own head, where she works out the problem of family as if it were algebra, coming up with formulas that work cleanly, both sides equal. But in practice the formulas don’t hold, they never hold, they crumble into pieces so fine they can’t be put back.

Another terrific story! It reminds me a lot of “Rothko Eggs” because it is a teenage girl trying to figure out a very confusing world! In “Rothko”, art is the lens through which the character sees the world, and here, it is a speech by Jesse Jackson!

I liked this girl very much! I was very interested in her and her discoveries; I am not completely sure I would be so invested if I had not read the material leading up to this, however! Not the parts about the Love family, but the parts about the mill workers and the strike. But I can not know for sure!

Francine is the daughter of Bruce and Cindy Love from “The Joy Business” and the younger sister of Kenny from “Take Care, Good Boy.” She is 13 and goes with her father to the college one Saturday to find material about Jesse Jackson (he is coming to the mill to speak in a few days), she finds out another secret instead! All this time, the town is still on strike, and she feels like an oustider because her family has no connection to the mill. The teacher gives her an A on her report and praises her, but then when it comes time to pick a student to greet Jesse Jackson, the son of the union president is picked by the class! Francine has probably not read Animal Farm yet, but she is discovering that even among the downtrodden some people are more equal than others:

Not everybody has suffered equally. At first everybody was equally angry, their anger a straight, perfectly directed line, like an electrical current….Their anger is no longer perfect. It is less an electrical current than a lightning bolt, jagged and hard to control and not as fussy about its target….Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, they have sung many times, standing on this hallowed floor: The union makes us stronnng! Francine loves that song, she hums it all the time. But solidarity is not a floor, she has found. It is a ladder. People end up on different rungs.

Just before Jesse Jackson arrives to address the union, word comes that the company is selling the mill! This is terrible news! They are just out of work now! There is no more strike but no more work either! They may never get what they were owed! And while Francine is trying to figure this out, she returns home with knowledge of the secret about her father she discovered at the college, and learns one more new thing: “that she, Francine Love, is a person about whom it is possible to have inside knowledge. That her father is the one who possesses it.”

Shuffle, Step

With Marie gone, Ernie saw the world more than ever as a place for two-by-two.

This is an excellent closing story! It ties some of the characters together and fills in some information that gives the reader an idea of where things will go from here! And it closes with the ark, where it opened, and I like closing circles very much!

Francine Love, the girl from “Solidarity is Not A Floor,” has sold Ernie a winning ticket for dance lessons, but he does not want to go! He has no one to go with! So she goes with him! The dance class turns out to be tap dancing which is where the title comes from, but it fits perfectly in the overall storyline of the collection: things change! We change our gait to match, then go on! We tap dance through the difficulties and the fun stuff too, just to keep our footing! And the son James, from “Visitors,” comes to visit Ernie! And though that story was not one I particularly liked, it now fits and fills in this story, the whole flow of the collection!

So yes it is excellent structure for the collection overall, and it is also a lovely story! It reminds me a little bit of the very end of The Financial Lives of the Poets – or I should say the other way around since this collection came years before the novel! The story ends with Ernie and his son working on the ark – two by two – like “Poets” ends with the family working on the treeless tree house! Something about building things, a concrete sign of rebuilding a life and starting over! It is a wonderful story and left me very happy!

Overall:
Some collections, you can read the stories out of order. Maybe there is a story you have heard of, or , or one someone recommended to you. But here, the stories are in chronological order, so there is a progression in time! It does need to be read consecutively, from beginning to end! And that means the less-interesting stories can not be skipped; do not worry, they enrich what is to come!

One of the themes that is emphasized in the “Questions for reading groups” part of the end material is the ark itself, how it is viewed by people, how that view changes, how the symbolism works in each story even when it is not mentioned! Sometimes it is about safety during times of trouble – the original Ark was intended to keep Noah et al safe from the Flood, and the strike is like the Flood! But there is also the idea of two-by-two which is there at the start and comes to full fruition with the last story! It is very effective!

I am very happy I read this book and I happily recommend it!

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5 responses to “Sunday with Zin: Monica Wood: Ernie’s Ark – Ballantine Books, 2002

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