Reviewer Jan Worth-Nelson is the author of Night Blind — a Peace Corps novel. Her most recent publication, “Ordinary Dirt,” was part of a Driftwood special issue featuring poems of exactly 100 words. Her works of more than 100 words — essays, fiction, poems and reviews — have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Detroit Free Press, East Village Magazine, Witness, Controlled Burn, Blaze, Dunes Review, Fourth Genre and others. Her manuscript-in-progress is Lost at Angels Gate, a collection of poems attempting to capture her dual life in Flint and Los Angeles. She teaches writing at the University of Michigan/Flint.
Eternal on the Water
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso, 1975-77)
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976–78)
In the past few years I’ve reviewed a number of books by RPCVs whose stories delivered compelling drama, but whose writing left something to be desired. If there’s one thing Peace Corps Volunteers come home with, after all, it’s stories. But not everybody knows how to tell them. It’s challenging, if not downright disheartening, as a reviewer, to walk the tightrope between cherishing memorable narratives and lamenting inadequate craft.
So it is with considerable relief that I find myself able to say that Joseph Monninger knows how to write. In his new novel from Gallery Books, Eternal on the Water, Monninger’s writing is lovingly polished and gratifying, as in this moment when his narrator, a young prep school teacher named Jonathan Cobb, sets out in a kayak down the Allagash River:
I passed a blue heron, its body still, its legs holding knee deep in a backwater, a frog pond, and I had passed it before I could be certain it was a bird, perhaps it had been a bush, a tree trunk, but then the water shot me out and over a second shelf of rock. I scraped my paddle blade on the rocks and I suddenly realized that the water was absurdly shallow, the draft no more than inches, and paddling no longer made sense. I used the blades as rudder, shifting back and forth, guiding the boat smoothly now, with confidence, and then, imperceptibly at first, the water broadened. Its urgency departed and what had been compressed now diffused and the water flowed through cattails and reeds, and two red-winged blackbirds made a chittering call, like a piece of paper caught into a fan blade, like grass speaking if it could speak.
As I exhort my writing students, there’s a particular pleasure when form follows content. Cobb’s headlong plunge into the water vividly parallels his emotional course toward the woman he has just met and whose effect on him will prove to be powerfully life-changing.
And tragic. No spoiler alert needed here. Mary Fury, Cobb’s memorable soul mate, is already dead on page one. And after finding out that she has died consciously, of her own choice in that same river, the rest of the novel backs up and tells us why, and how, and why it matters.
Monninger is a long-time English professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, and author of 16 other books, including several “young adult” novels and non-fiction projects. Asked “what he regrets” in one of his online interviews, he replies, “Besides war, famine, and human suffering . . . I regret the times that I have been unkind and insensitive.”
He doesn’t have to worry about that in Eternal on the Water. His story line is infused with kindness and a tolerable, reassuring sweetness. Considering that Mary Fury, irrepressible teller of knock-knock jokes, lover of crows and wearer of a “mad bomber” cap, is dying of Huntington’s Disease, the governing attitude of the story is life affirming and remarkably upbeat.
In fact, though this isn’t technically a Peace Corps novel, I contend Monninger gives himself away as an RPCV apart from the facts of his biography. His characters exude reliable hope and buoyant altruism. Mary is part of a camp to create happy experiences for sick teenage girls; her brother, Freddy, is saving turtles in Indonesia; Cobb himself helps a talented but depressed black kid, out of place in his prep school, and brings him into Mary’s extended family in the woods. I’m not sure I buy them entirely, but the characters are worldly without being cynical, experienced without being jaded. Good old RPCV types, in other words.
There might be more kissing in this book than any other novel I’ve ever read, and for that alone, Monninger should get a “chick lit” prize. It isn’t sleazy — it’s the smooching of really hot making out, the way the goddesses intended it, and it’s mostly charming. Cobb and Mary’s mutual physical heat is delivered earthily, without salacious aftertaste, and it adds poignancy to what we know is coming.
Eternal on the Water, in short, is a lovely book, calling us to love one another and to love our life on Earth. Pay attention, Monninger’s generous characters tell us; don’t forget how fast it all speeds by.