The byline for David Ebenbach’s website states that he’s been “preoccupied with the human condition since 1972.” His recent and prizewinning book, Into the Wilderness, gives wide-ranging evidence of this decades-long fascination.
This collection of fourteen stories introduces a variety of characters: a single father struggling simultaneously to establish parental boundaries and connect meaningfully with his children during a weekend visit; a mother deciding whether to be alarmed at her five-year-old daughter’s worrisome behavior; an adult daughter remembering the unresolved relational strain that accompanied her now-deceased father’s final days; a childless couple deciding whether to have a baby; a gay/lesbian couple meeting their son’s need for a male role model; a father surprised by a college-aged son’s unscheduled visit; a husband observing his wife’s frighteningly determined attempt to resume a physically demanding activity, only seven months after delivering their son; an infertile couple continuing to move forward in the midst of unrelenting grief.
The characters range anywhere from benevolent to violent, protective to detached, certain to befuddled, and Ebenbach’s subjects are both comical and serious, often tragic, but with glimpses of exuberance that are just fleeting enough to be believable. Throughout the collection, the unifying subject remains that of family—siblings, grandparents, children young, old or unborn; parents new and experienced; families, nontraditional and traditional. And each family consists of individuals captured in the sometimes-menial and often baffling midst of the human condition.
The separate narratives also hold together through four stories about a Judith, who herself isn’t holding together so well. In these stand-alone but connected texts, a young, professional single woman navigates an unexpected pregnancy. Much of Judith’s struggle derives from her inability to name her daughter. Yet she—like many of the characters—is quite capable of naming, and embodying, her fears, foibles, qualms, and shortcomings. This undercurrent of human struggle is a constant reminder that, as with all people, “something dangerous” may very well be “close at hand.” Perhaps ironically, it’s his artful acknowledgment of these imperfections that makes Ebenbach’s prose shine.
As the title suggests, Into the Wilderness takes readers into the rougher terrain of the human condition while remaining grounded in the near-mundane details of the day-to-day. The effect—part Raymond Carver, part Jane Smiley—is a seamless cast of players, each “a person in a long chain of people trying very hard to figure out how to get life right.” Their foibles are evident, yet Ebenbach keeps an eye on hope, rendering “a statement about a wholeness that is available in the universe” but—as the characters and events constantly remind us, “by no means inevitable.”
Author Photo by Donna Danoff