University of South Carolina Press
200 Pages; Print, $19.99
The cover of The Time the Waters Rose & Stories of the Gulf Coast appears to be a tranquil photo of a shrimp boat, perhaps returning to the docks after a day of trawling. The nets are raised, opportunist gulls are circling, and the waters are calm. The ocean and sky are, however, distinguished only by their different shades of gray, and the boat is an off-center, black silhouette. In these stories, the waters on which the characters live and breathe and have their being at once present inviting serenity as well as ominous threat, and no one there maintains an even keel for long.
Paul Ruffin died in April of 2016, leaving a literary legacy that numbered hundreds of poems, over a hundred short stories, as many essays, two novels, and countless inspired students, many of whom are successful writers themselves. His fictional characters tend to be ordinary, rural people trying to survive in a world in which the odds seem stacked against them, his poems illuminate the nuances in that world that sometimes almost even out those odds, and his essays reveal his personal wagers against and reflections upon the gambles we all take with every move in this world of chance. In this, his last, book, published only a few weeks before his death, Ruffin explores his favored themes in his favorite setting—on, by, or under water.
The collection opens with the title story, one perhaps more whimsical than any of the work from a writer known for his dark humor. He explains in the preface that he toyed with a fanciful story of Noah since childhood, and his years of thinking about it resulted in this hilarious caricature. Curious neighbors spy on the eccentric ship-builder and alternate among skepticism, ridicule, and fear regarding his apocalyptic project. The puzzled observers speculate in home-spun language: they “rekkin,” “figger,” offer to “hep y’all,” and dismiss the prophecy with “Rain, my ass.” The story ends differently from the biblical version, and although primarily a humorous piece, it hints at how our relationship to water is one that is both necessary to life yet often deadly.
“Devilfish,” like the rest of the stories here, is set on Mississippi’s Gulf shores and introduces a repeated theme in the book—how one can fall under a spell that will lead to a long life on or a sudden death under the sea. Two men try to snag a huge manta ray, and although one labors tirelessly Ahab-like in his intent on killing the monster while the other, the narrator, is the observant, obedient boat mate like Ishmael, this is no simple paean to Melville.
It was the mystery that hooked a fellow—an almost religious awe—not knowing what lay in the sand beneath you or what was taking your bait way down there, not knowing its color or shape or size, whether it had two eyes, each on a side, or two on one side, or one eye or none at all. It might weigh in ounces or in tons. There was a lot I didn’t know about what swam down there and what it swam around.
The narrator remains satisfied with the mystery, fearful of what could be extracted from the unseen depths. “Devilfish” serves as a cautionary tale for sorting through the rest of the book’s characters: those who approach the sea with measured prudence and those who suffer from a sea-faring hubris.
“The Hands of John Merchant” is about a man who works at the shipyard on weekdays and fishes the Gulf on weekends. Despite being an experienced boater, Merchant challenges the elements to their tragic limits when he stays on the water a bit too long in a squall. The main characters of “Mystery in the Surf at Petit Bois” find a different sort of tragedy when their shrimp net pulls up something bizarre which they discard, only...