Novelist, ex-soldier and short story fisher king Scott Ely offers an extraordinarily memorable catch in his latest collection, Dream Fishing.
From the appropriately accessible “Wasps,” with its comparatively youthful voice and subject, to the profound “Guatemala City,” Ely continually casts his stories in deeper waters. His sometimes untidy but probing prose and unexpected point-of-view shifts challenge the reader like billfish in open ocean, but Ely knows how and when to let his narrative lure down into the caverns.
A writing angler with keen observation and expert skill, Ely has created increasingly intricate stories with a strong voice, existential themes and a discerning style that disturbs life’s silty bottom to raise more questions than answers. He does this without the entanglement of sentimentalism, and the resulting angst forms a hook that embeds itself in the psyche.
Throughout this varied but cohesive collection is a palpable sense of life’s impermanence, evident in “Mississippi Rules.” One of several stories with dreams amid dreams, this piece reveals the things we tell ourselves to get the job of living done. In “The Fishpond,” people go from grand aspirations to small fry all too easily, and in the process find life coming unexpectedly full circle.
“Rocks,” in a distant echo of Life of Pi, includes facets of a story that may not be real, and here Ely deftly handles tone to become childlike at just the right moments, representing the result of a dominant father on a subservient son, a theme that ripples throughout the collection.
“Lovers of Hurricanes” proves Ely’s capacity for pretty prose, but true to life, things don’t stay pretty and the story showcases his ability to say a lot with very little, especially in dialogue. With this technique, he proves a master at exploring how we humans deflect motive, which is betrayed nonetheless by our aspirations. From Eden and Noah to Moby Dick, this piece is a sail among classics, but with originality that belongs to Ely alone, for he competently shows how people can be connected more by death than life, and how in coping and beginning again we create and recreate Eden. Perhaps loveliest here is the line, “He was afraid to speak of love.” Who isn’t? But Ely wisely stops in medias res, resisting the temptation to provide a neat ending.
Laying the groundwork for much of these pieces is Ely’s infantry experience in Vietnam, and the shrapnel of “Pure Water” and dreams of what cannot be fly into “84 Avenue Foch” and beyond. In “Foch,” he explores human fascination with the unknowable. A master of minimalist conversation, he leaves much unsaid but still communicated, and explores parallelism in lives lost and regained, the shooting of guns and of photographs — so many intrusions — though the images here are what make life real.
The title piece, “Dream Fishing,” explores the connection between knowledge and love. Can we love someone we don’t know? Can we really know anyone? What role do beliefs play — do they alter dreams or create them? One thing is clear amid the mist; when a person’s dreams are manufactured, intimacy is lost, prompting the protagonist to ask, “Was this what life with her was going to be like, belladonna in a hammock?” Doesn’t everyone in a relationship ask this question in some form or another? And so the evasions begin and we trawl again for meaning in the lives of our parents.
In “The Poisoned Arrow,” the death of a mother and father make way for the next generation, though their legacy lives on. Fathers may tend to deal with the inevitability of death by mapping paths for others to follow, but the outcome never matches the plan. This is evident, too, in “The Oldest Man in Mississippi,” where one lesson learned is that matter how hard we try to sequester our parents in life’s unused rooms, eventually they escape.
Finally, in “Guatemala City,” we again meet Rembert Williams of “Pure Water,” and this time his wife, Cassie. In this story, a chasm cracks open to reveal life’s deepest questions. How serious does crime have to be before we say “enough”? What do our aspirations and dreams say of us? Without dreams of our own, will we end up with someone else’s life? One thing is certain, if men don’t want to become their fathers, women don’t want to become their mothers either.
Among the many invigorating qualities of Ely’s work is his refreshing approach to women, who sometimes carry Glocks in their purses but aren’t detectives, and unexpectedly step from shadow to light and back. In waters mercurial as these you could trawl a long time, which makes Dream Fishing a sleeper hit that never assumes dreams or life is out there to be caught, not easily anyway.