The final story in Call Me Ahab features one of Anne Finger’s saltier characters going on a bit of a tirade. This guy believes the history of culture and myth owes a great debt to the disabled—and since the modern, able-bodied reader remains as ignorant to the cause as ever, he decides to drop some knowledge on us.
“Did not the ancient Greeks have a gimp sitting atop Mount Olympus?” he asks, and of course he’s right. It’s Hephaestus, the formidable god of technology, blacksmiths, and volcanoes. “[And w]ho wrote the first account of Hephaestus? Who but mighty Homer, himself blind!” Another bullseye. By now most readers will have gladly conceded the point, but this guy isn’t one to give up a good grudge. He takes his rhetorical questions and moves brusquely on to world history: “Who raised this nation up from the depths of her Depression? Why, a man with a pair of legs like cooked spaghetti.”
As for the narrator, so wise and yet so pissed off, you may have heard of him, too: he used to preside over a little boat called the Pequod. It seems a certain Ishmael told the world that he was a madman, and he’d like to set the record straight.
Despite his theatrics, Captain Ahab’s thesis is essentially the same as his author’s. Call Me Ahab is a book-long testament to the impact disabled figures have had on the course of human civilization and thought—and if that sounds like a dully educational premise, Finger manages to spice things up with a few doses of time travel, brazen historical anachronisms, and a clandestine lesbian affair between Helen Keller and Frida Kahlo.
I’m a bit of a sucker for these kinds of metatextual experiments, but the truth is that they can easily fall flat—the author piggybacking on the established strength of a better writer’s better ideas. Finger, by her own admission, appropriates a fair amount of material in this collection, though to her credit it’s mostly done in the service of her larger campaign. And when she makes up her mind whether she’s out to subtly rewrite history or smash it to bits, the material sings.
Most of the stories err on the radical side. “Vincent” drops Van Gogh into New York City in the ‘80s, where he spends his days filthy and homeless, trying to make sense of a letter regarding his Social Security application that reads, “We are increasing your benefit amount … We cannot pay you any benefit at this time.” Vincent stares blearily at the page, “meditat[ing] on this bureaucratic koan.” In “Gloucester,” a viciously blinded character from King Lear is re-imagined as a modern-day, terminally ill AIDS patient presiding over his own fractured estate. And in the title story, Ahab files his bitter report via computer that he actually caught Moby Dick, thank you very much, and if Ishmael didn’t have such a peg-leg fetish maybe he’d have thought to include that little detail in his treatise. These pieces gleefully rip their source material to shreds, yet retain a keen sense of homage. They give voice to the voiceless, yes, but also demonstrate how the plight of the disabled is rooted less in historical circumstance than in a persistent societal bias; let’s just say things don’t automatically improve once you arrive in the 21st century.
But there are also times where Finger tries to blend right in with the historical record—notably in “Our Ned,” about the (possibly fictional) inspiration for the Luddites, and the first half of “The Artist and the Dwarf,” set in 17th-century Spain. These are lush, confident pieces that have no need for any fancy window-dressing.
In fact, it’s only when Finger tries to do both at once, and ends up in a hazy, mixed-up soup of past and present, that things go wrong. The story about the Biblical Goliath is one of the bigger missteps, all of whose problems can be summed up in one passage: “The healer steeped his fingers and said to the family: ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder hath triggered an underlying psychosis….’”
Once presented with an argument like Finger’s, it’s hard to think of who, exactly, would oppose it. Surely we all believe that the disabled have been given a bad historical rap, and that physical deformities have too often been used as a cheap metaphor for evil. It’s unimpeachable. Then again, the obvious arguments are often the ones we most need reminding of, and in that sense Finger is generous in turning to fiction instead of the op-ed page: she gives us several spoonfuls of narrative sugar to help the medicine go down. The reader emerges entertained, and healthier to boot.
University of Nebraska Press, 206 pp, $24.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in Crab Town Magazine, April 26, 2010)May 11, 2010