Cold Water Canoe Club, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.
I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that has given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clearsighted and despairing, Mr. Hess’s book takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, who we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe – and even prosperous.
Given today’s concerns about American’s conflicts and rivalries with Putin’s Russia, a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War has an added dimension of relevance. In addition, the stories are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery, and presented through unmistakably authentic first or third person voices. Well, perhaps there is a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices.
The lives of shipboard sailors on patrol in potentially dangerous parts of the world are lives of confinement and compression. Their tasks as communications experts or engineers or electricians are tedious and tense. They perform maintenance, make repairs when necessary, and prepare to meet emergencies. A ship is a dangerous place even when not under fire. So many things can go disastrously wrong. Such things happen in Jeffery Hess’s stories.
These sailors are confined spatially, socially, and often spiritually. They depend on one another and yet can learn to both love and hate their workmates. The compression demands release: port days with a bit of time off, prostitutes, and all the drugs and alcohol one can manage or mismanage.
Mr. Hess begins with an early marker of the background history, a story set in 1949 near the outset of the Cold War. He moves us forward through the following decades, beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, and up to the Reagan presidency’s achievement. He takes us to Lebanon, Turkey, Manila, Naples, Guam, and other places where a U. S. fighting ship might go – or stop.
Through flashbacks and other devices, the author sets these mostly young men into their larger lives: the kind of towns and families they come from, the marriages they have entered and exited, their relationships with the officer class that they serve under, race relationships, the ambitions they’ve put on hold, the children they hardly know, the injuries and other physical hardships that have aged them, and the inertia – or is it momentum? – that keeps them going. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 9, 2017 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 10 issue of the Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Cold Water Canoe Club