Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The Time the Waters Rose is a collection of eight short stories by the late Paul Ruffin. One of the eight is less a short story and more an excerpt from his 2002 novel, Pompeii Man.
The collection opens with a “Preface,” part biography and part apology or defense. Ruffin was born in rural Mississippi; a good portion of his early life was spent on the Gulf Coast with all kinds of fishing including “deep-fishing” and rigging a twenty-five foot Cobia boat for shrimping, dragging and pulling in “an incredible range of sealife.”
It’s life experience, of course, and Ruffin notes that he “never failed to “sense the mystery of the sea . . . . [and] the stories in this collection all celebrate in some fashion the mysteries of the sea, and most are drawn from experiences [he] had along the Mississippi Coast, a lost time now but a long way from being forgotten.”
Thus most of the stories are set along the Gulf Coast, with the exception of the first story, the title story, an irreverent re-telling of Noah and his ark. It’s reminiscent of blue-collar redneck comedy, Jeff Foxworthy and them idiots. The reader, in other words, might imagine himself pulling into Branson, exiting the tour bus, filing into a theater, and waiting for jokes and stories about life as a redneck, Noah and his neighbors especially. What’s missing in Ruffin’s story is a Confederate flag fluttering from the masthead of the ark. But not hard to imagine.
And irreverent. Ruffin, though, quotes Flannery O’Connor in his Preface by noting her belief that every story “should have some humor in it, some leavening agent.” One might argue, however, that the irreverent humor in Ruffin’s title story is less a leavening agent and more akin to the (very often adult) bitterly sarcastic stand-up of Ron White. In other words, the irreverent humor of the redneck narrator is more often than not obscenely smart-ass. May my very polite, well-mannered mother forgive the epithet.
“Devilfish” is the second story in the collection. Two men are old friends, having grown up together as inland country boys. Sam has taken a job at a shipyard, has married, and has three kids all before age twenty-five. The narrator did his college work, taught math at a high school, and “batched.” The two have reunited on the Gulf Coast, that place where they “could look out every day and see that water arching over to the horizon,” drawing them out onto the water “like a mistress.” But it wasn’t just the fishing; “it was the sense of mystery, of the unknown.” The narrator comments that “it was almost like religious awe.”
What, though, is in the depths?
Around noon one day, while finishing sandwiches and their eighth or ninth beer, the sea dead flat, slick as oil, the “reels squawked.” They pulled hard, two fine snapper, and then nothing.
Something was down there. And that something was at “least eighteen feet wide,” an enormous ray. For the narrator, the rest is bits and pieces, “a sort of stop-frame horror movie.”
This is a fine story but not a typical fishing yarn. It’s rich with description, thunderheads, squalls, and the shadows that play both on the surface and the depths of the open waters of the Gulf. The prose is magnificent; when the devil fish rises, the narrator notes that a “great green dome of water” boiled up; the ray turned toward us, “not twenty feet out, turning and rising until he completely left the sea, the end of one wing blotting out the sun, sailing with his white belly above us.” And then he was gone, rising, “swelling a vast dome of water, his wings gently arching like a dark hand waving goodbye.” Ruffin channeling Melville.
Rich, then, with tactile descriptions of weather threatening “with white clouds trundling along under darker ones, and you don’t want to get caught out there in a sixteen-footer with heavy weather.” Or so we read in the third story, “The Hands of John Merchant,” a grotesque tale of how one may or may not “blacken” anything or how almost anything might taste better since that’s “what barbecue sauce and deep-fat frying is all about.” One can get close enough, in other words, if the spices are right and if served with blood-red wine. The story should, however, carry a security warning to medical school gross anatomy laboratories: keep those cadavers under closer lock and key. Just sayin’….
“Mystery in the Surf at Petit Bois” is the fifth story in the collection. Fishing again, managing one decent drag “that yielded a triple handful of shrimp” and a dozen or so good crabs. On the
next drag, the boat slows and the nose rises a bit; the narrator “was getting pretty excited. I mean, it’s a mystery . . . never knowing what you’re going to dump on that board.” It’s enough, though, to pull the winch off board, yanking off a big chunk of fiberglass from the stern What emerges is well over a hundred pounds but then there “ain’t no end of mysteries when it comes to the sea.”
“Cleo” is the concluding story in the collection; it’s a story to be counted and kept and anthologized. Clyde McManus has retired from years at the Pascagoula shipyards, watching ship after ship “splash into saltwater for the first time, rock gently, steady itself, and then move smoothly into the Gulf for a trial run and then to wherever it was headed.” Clyde is moving into that most sublime of territories, the future—and with plans.
In no time at all, there’s scaffolding in the backyard, pieces of timber and a figurehead, “an ebony face and shoulders with a ribbon of red cloth covering the breasts.” He’s building a ship, not a boat, and it’s forty-two feet long and in his own backyard. With his wife, he muses: Clyde has built boats and ships for other people his whole life and watched them head off one-by-one to parts unknown. And he’s dreamed about going. He’s got the time and money and he’s been salvaging for years.
The whole business, his wife Cora notes, is a bit like that Johnny Cash song where a man steals all those car parts and puts together a Cadillac. “Might near could,” Clyde says, “Might near.”
Over the weeks the Cleo takes shape but much to the consternation of the children, who believe “it’s unfair for [Clyde] to squander the family money on foolishness…”
But is it ridiculous for a retired sensible man to be doing what Clyde is doing? The children twirl their fingers at their temples while Clyde gazes out toward the Gulf. The days and weeks and months progress and then, one morning, Cora looks out the kitchen window to see Clyde “applying a brilliant coat of white paint” and, before the sun sets the next day, “the ship was trimmed in green and gold.” The Cleo had become a ship, anchored high and dry in a suburban sea.
But maybe not….
There’s a Ruffin poem about “green waves of wind” flinging and ” a brighter day” beyond the banal less bright days of the secure but ordinary. The last story is the most stellar in the batch and with less of the dark and twisty turns of the other stories in the collection.
Paul Ruffin was 74 when he died, a Texas literary icon with a stellar southern voice.