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Coming across a short-story collection unswervingly devoted to a single theme down to it slightest detail is always notable. That’s the case with Washington author and Georgetown University professor David Ebenbach’s new collection, Into the Wilderness, where the wilderness of the title is parenthood. From the maternity ward to a child’s romantic breakup in college, these stories follow single mothers, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, married parents, and unemployed parents through the emotional wilds of parenthood, with lots of focus on the often grueling physical labor of raising infants and toddlers.
“Escape Artist” chronicles the travails of a divorced mother of two nearly grown children, a harried nurse who lives in a seedy section of West Philadelphia. Her teenage son accidentally locks her in the basement: “…But then she decided she was more Harry Houdini than Rocky. Yes—she had escaped her childhood home and a disappointing marriage and those green carpets in the rental place and every month she escaped bankruptcy, and now the basement, her basement! She could get herself out of anything.” Miriam, the escape artist, very much resembles Judith, a protagonist of four of these stories, in that she makes unflinchingly true assessments of the surprises and indignities that life throws at her, and is independent and quite able to pursue what she wants. Judith, however, is a more than a little mixed up—not so Miriam—which yields great fodder for the recurring stories about her.
Only one story, “Counterfactual,” could be called a stab at experimental fiction, always risky for a writer whose obvious strength is realism. But Ebenbach manages it, keeping the lens trained on parenthood, just as he succeeds with the stories that lack apparent endings, the ones that meander off, like “Naming,” whose up-in-the-air finale mirrors something essential about the lives of its characters, defined by their uncertainty about becoming parents.
Ebenbach scatters striking aperçus and snappy one-liners throughout his stories: “the bitter Greek chorus of experienced parents”; “my swimmy tiredness”; “Despite herself, she was thinking unsmiling thoughts”; and so forth. These lambent observations brighten what would otherwise be the extremely prosaic terrain of raising children. They illumine how its struggles are the struggles of life itself, ones that may seem small and mundane at first glance but that are, on closer inspection, quite large, huge even, big enough for it to be said that they are what life is really about.
Taken together, these 14 stories amount to a meditation on what it means to be a mother or father. This, very often, involves what it means to be a husband or wife. This fiction focuses on the most important human relations, the ones central to our conceptions of who we are and what life is about. Ebenbach does this all while playing to his strength: using the small, the ordinary, the everyday to give little glimmering glimpses of the enormous, the extraordinary, and the startlingly true.