In his latest story collection, writer David Ebenbach plumbs the depths of parenthood
Announcing to the world your pregnancy means a world of unsolicited parenting advice. Everyone is an authority and everyone will tell you what to do. And not do. It might be easy then to dismiss an author’s collection of short stories about parenting as indistinct.
The opposite is true in the case of David Ebenbach’s second collection of short stories, Into the Wilderness. The narrative scope is not limited by the theme of parenting; it is the engine, and Ebenbach’s range is as varied and nuanced as the parental experience, which is nothing if not an experiment in change. (There—I just added my own unsolicited parenting quip; blame evolution.)
There are stories of fathers, like in “Jewish Day” where “the usual non-custodial parent’s effort to make every visit a kind of adventure” at Shea Stadium turns into a Sisyphean battle of wills against his tween kids; another father, in “Hungry to Eat,” consoles his heartbroken college son with a hearty buffet and perfectly timed words of wisdom. Most of the ten stories, however, feature a mother as protagonist or narrator, as is the case with the novella, Judith, which is broken into four chapters that segment and bookend the collection.
Stripped down to its essence, the four stories of Judith all center on the birth of her daughter: coming home from the hospital with her parents in her cramped NYC studio; confronting the dilemma of pregnancy and not knowing the father; hitting the sleepless breaking point as a single zombie parent in those first few weeks; and finally combusting over the Naming Ceremony, the all-important Jewish rite of introducing your child to the world.
Judaism underscores some of the plots, but the stories are never about the religion. They’re about parenting and love and legacy, or as one character says, “We’re here to teach our children how to hold onto their souls, how to be true to themselves.”
This is exceedingly difficult for even the parents in the collection, let alone their children. In “The Escape Artist” a divorced mother must break out of her home after being locked in the basement by her teenage son; yet another mother fears the Arab across the hall and own her sense of alienation and dislocation; two mothers enlist their son in a playdate swap with two dads, and more.
Despite the gender flipping, the characters in all these stories are so fully realized that you never doubt the narrative perspective. There’s no literary pretension, no sense that Ebenbach is doing it just to try it. Ebenbach’s empathy, of showing the complexity of his characters no matter how dark—like when Judith flees her ceaselessly wailing and unnamed baby in her apartment, set to wander off into the wilderness of NYC—give it an authenticity that transcend gender or parental roles into what is at heart what it means to be human. It’s as if the stories have always existed and we’re hearing about it now; they weren’t created by some guy, they happened to someone.
There’s a calm fluidity to his prose, a consistency so that even when a character is in tumult, the expression of it remains clear, keeping us connected. Then there’s lines like this: “She sounded like…someone painted entirely in tones of storms.”
Just because parenting is messy and complex, the expression of it does not have to be.
—Stay posted for a Q&A with the author