Paul Ruffin died in April of 2016, at the age of 74, leaving a literary legacy that numbered hundreds of poems, over a hundred short stories, as many essays, two novels, and countless inspired students, many of whom are successful writers themselves. Ruffin was born in Alabama, grew up in Mississippi, and spent most of his academic career at Sam Houston State University where he directed the creative writing program and founded the Texas Review and the Texas Review Press. In 2009, he was named the Texas Poet Laureate. Despite winning many awards and earning the praise of some of America’s best writers, like so many others labeled “a writer’s writer,” he never made a best-seller list. His fictional characters tend to be ordinary, rural people trying to survive in a world in which the odds seem stacked against them, his poems illuminate the nuances in that world that sometimes almost even out those odds, and his essays reveal his personal wagers against and reflections upon the gambles we all take with every move in this world of chance.
A good introduction to his fiction is his last book, The Time the Waters Rose & Stories of the Gulf Coast (University of South Carolina Press, 2016), published only a few weeks before his death. All the pieces in this collection were previously published, and in each Ruffin explores his favored themes in his favorite setting—on, by, or under water.
The waters on which the characters live and breathe and have their being at once present inviting serenity as well as ominous threat, and no one there maintains an even keel for long. The collection opens with the title story, one perhaps more whimsical than any of the work from a writer known for his dark humor. In this burlesque of the Noah story, curious neighbors spy on the eccentric ship-builder and alternate among skepticism, ridicule, and fear regarding his apocalyptic project. The puzzled observers speculate in home-spun language: they “rekkin,” “figger,” offer to “hep y’all,” and dismiss the prophecy with “Rain, my ass.” The story ends differently from the biblical version, and although primarily a humorous piece, it hints at how our relationship to water is one that is both necessary to life yet often deadly.
“Devilfish,” like the rest of the stories here, is set on Mississippi’s Gulf shores and introduces a repeated theme in the book—how one can fall under a spell that will lead to a long life on or a sudden death under the sea. Two men try to snag a huge manta ray, and although one labors tirelessly Ahab-like in his intent on killing the monster while the other, the narrator, is the observant, obedient boat mate like Ishmael, this is no simple paean to Melville. “Devilfish” serves as a cautionary tale for sorting through the rest of the book’s characters: those who approach the sea with measured prudence and those who suffer from a sea-faring hubris.
“The Hands of John Merchant” is about a man who works at the shipyard on weekdays and fishes the Gulf on weekends. Despite being an experienced boater, Merchant challenges the elements to their tragic limits when he stays on the water a bit too long in a squall. The main characters of “Mystery in the Surf at Petit Bois” find a different sort of tragedy when their shrimp net pulls up something bizarre which they discard, only to discover later that the peculiar catch could have made them rich. “The Drag Queen and the Southern Cross” illustrates how the ocean can demand adjustments to one’s deepest principles. While one character comments on “how wonderful it is to be out here so close to God and the center of creation,” and another claims “I seen Jesus in the water by the boat,” yet another sees his once-unquestioned convictions dissolve and is driven to murderous response.
In “Islands, Women, and God,” the title piece of a previous collection, the religious dimension that lurks within the other stories as a subtle force inspiring both attraction and angst breaks the surface and demands to be confronted. The narrator’s friend Ray disappears and is believed dead but is found living as a recluse on the Mississippi barrier islands that appear in several of these stories. Ray is profoundly changed by water, salt, sand, and much like the New Testament disciples who happen by upon the resurrected Jesus by the water, Roger at first thinks Ray is a ghost. When his confusion dissipates, Roger struggles with the push and pull of numinous Ray, whose oracular pronouncements keep Roger in awe. Roger is overwhelmed by this redefined Ray but wonders if his new vision and life will ultimately lead to destruction.
“Cleo” is a fitting end to this collection. Clyde has worked for decades at the shipyard, building ships that he could never afford. When he retires builds his own boat in his backyard with parts that he has secretly stolen from the ship factory for decades. Unlike most working people who share that dream to escape from the curse of work, the control of a boss, and for whom even retirement does not provide the freedom they had hoped for, Clyde makes his dream come true and finds release for himself and his wife on the open sea and, making the break even sweeter, courtesy of the very “stainless steel screws and bolts and brass fittings” that had kept him moored to land all his adult life.
Paul Ruffin’s extraordinary body of work is squarely within the tradition of the South’s best weavers of tales. His fictive world is populated by working people, sometimes townspeople, other times swamp dwellers, and often the marine-bound. They struggle against the restrictions of class, the freight of history, and the constraints of culture. They often endure despite little hope for deliverance from their socio-economic conditions, and sometimes they are swallowed up by indifferent forces such as the sea. Ruffin treats them all, however, with dignity, as people whose lives are as complex and deserving of attention as any of those depicted in the upper-class-filled NYT best-sellers. Like Flannery O’Connor’s, Ruffin’s characters lurch toward possible redemption but more awkwardly, splashing a shadowy course that may end in light or more shadows or death. We gaze at these Gulf Coast people of the rope-callused hands, of the sun-toughened necks, of the horizon-aimed eyes, and, like the waters that buoy them, they reflect back upon us wavy images of ourselves.