Review: Island Fog
Review of Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014) by Wendell Mayo
John Vanderslice’s debut collection is a whopping cycle of beautifully crafted stories spanning over two hundred years of Nantucket history, each emerging from the fog of the past crystal clear, complete, and poignant. Reading Vanderslice’s stories, it’s as if Ishmael has never boarded the whaleship Pequod in Nantucket, as if he’s remained island-bound to tell these far-reaching, masterful tales. In a gripping, surreal novella reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, Vanderslice opens the collection in 1795, during which a consortium of religious oligarchs use a bank robbery as a kind of witch hunt to consolidate power. In “King Philip’s War,” the narrator challenges a Native American boy in a footrace whose outcome is more onerous than he can imagine. From the travails of whaling widows, to a ship’s Captain who must resort to cannibalism to survive on the high seas, to an African-American school teacher stalked by her students, we see Nantucket’s earliest European and native inhabitants struggling to find a place in this island community. In part two of the collection, beginning in 1999, Nantucket transforms from a site of colonization and industrial whaling to a tourist town, dead and haunted in its off-seasons, a crossroads for people running from others, and from themselves. A carpenter struggles with a “fog of soporific recollections” at the death of his wife and child. A man flees a love affair in Boston to establish a company giving ghost tours, only to be haunted himself. Jamaican immigrants find veiled resentment. The titular novella bookends this richly realized collection. In it, a young man flunking out of U Mass finds himself on a purgatorial visit to Nantucket, where he is hired to participate as an actor in “Hopes and Promises” tableaus that reenact customers’ past moments of deepest desires and regrets. Read this book! Rarely have I enjoyed a story collection with such artistic and historical sweep, one so quintessentially and vibrantly American.
Wendell Mayo, who directs the MFA program at Bowling Green University, is the author of four short story collections, most recently The Cucumber King of Kedainiai, which won the 2012 Subito Press Award for Innovative Fiction.