Elevate Difference

Call Me Ahab

Anne Finger’s award-winning Call Me Ahab showcases a plethora of historical and literary characters—each of whom is in some way disabled—and imagines new scenarios for their lives. It’s an exciting concept and while several of the stories in the nine-story collection left me cold, Finger is to be lauded for her originality.

Her talent is particularly vivid in "Vincent." Here, Finger brings Vincent Van Gogh into the late twentieth century. Instead of brother Theo endlessly supporting his deranged, if talented, sibling, he cuts him off, leaving Vincent to fend for himself on the teeming streets of New York City. Vincent’s heartbreaking existence is juxtaposed with that of a young, male bureaucrat employed by the Social Security Administration. The pairing is better than a social science text on service delivery, poignantly demonstrating the system’s betrayal of them both.

"Gloucester" re-imagines King Lear, but this time through the contemporary eyes of Gloucester Barrows, a middle-aged man dying of AIDS. Although Barrows is from a prominent political family—think the Kennedy or Bush clans—his marriage dissolved when his wife-of-convenience divorced him following his diagnosis. Now blind, Gloucester is eager to settle his affairs and has no choice but to rely on his two sons. Dexter, the elder, is pursuing elected office and has little time for his ailing dad; Charlie, just twenty, is a hippie’s hippie who has renounced material privilege to live in horrifying squalor. Gloucester’s navigation of this rocky terrain is pitch perfect and emotionally riveting.

"The Blind Marksman" takes readers into a mock socialist dystopia under the rule of “the Great Pilot of Our People, the Beacon of Hope to the Proletarians of the World, the Heroic Leader of the Struggle Against the Fascist Invader,” and introduces a blind marksman whose one-time feat with a bow-and-arrow is embellished with each telling. Like the children’s game of “telephone,” the story becomes more and more absurd, until in the end regime change renders the marksman a caricature of his former self.

The story implies that socialism is no better at protecting individuals than capitalism. But is this true? Call Me Ahab, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, is full of questions and what-ifs. For example, what if Moby Dick was told from Ahab’s perspective? What might Helen Keller and Frida Kahlo have discussed if they’d met? Finger’s "Helen and Frida" presents a bawdy conversation between the two that will leave you reeling, grinning, or both. Other stories feature those whose perspectives are not typically considered—the dwarf in painter Velasquez’ Las Meninas; a Jewish artist commissioned to draw disfigured internees for Hitler’s medics; and feeble-minded Ned Lud, the man behind the anti-machine Luddite Rebellion, among them.

Throughout, there’s attention to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, and discrimination against people with disabilities. While message is never sacrificed to craft, Finger wants readers to appreciate the contributions made by those with physical and psychological limitations. “Who is our greatest poet after Mr. Shakespeare?” she asks. “Why blind John Milton. And in my own century of origin, Monsieur Proust was by his asthma-laden lungs impaired in a major life function… I could mention fit-shaken Van Gogh, dwarf Toulouse-Lautrec, and mad Miss Woolf…Look to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. What see you? A one-legged man, and another who adds a palsied scrawl. Who raised the nation up from the depths of the Depression? Why a man with a pair of legs like cooked spaghetti.”

World affairs and letters have clearly benefited from the talents of the disabled. But Call Me Ahab is no diatribe. Instead, it is a cheering section for the forgotten and under-appreciated and a testament to creativity, whimsy, and intellect.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, July 16th 2009