A change of pace for The Wordstock Ten: Jacob Aiello’s “Call Me Ishmael”

I’d be tempted to say that the first two stories in The Wordstock Ten are stories of heartbreak. In a way, are not all coming-of-age stories really loss-of-innocence stories? And is loss of innocence not the ultimate heartbreak?

If that’s the case, then a story of return to innocence ought to be a heart-healing one, but in fact the premise is false—there is heartbreak and heart-healing in both rediscovery and in loss of innocence. Jacob Aiello’s “Call Me Ishmael” is exemplary. It’s a story of an incomplete man made whole. I should reach end of this piece in full rejoice, so why is my heart in my throat?

No spoilers ahead, but here are the conditions of “Call Me Ishmael”: The protagonist, a family man in need of a healing experience, solicits a prostitute for (non-sexual) favors that will help him put to rest a demon of his own past with his own mother as he moves forward in his relationship with his own son. I hope that is a both sufficiently vague and enticing synopsis.

There are great touches everywhere: the whale you expect to encounter from the story’s title shows up on the first page of not Melville, but of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories. The opening scene, a completely seedy street encounter with the prostitute, moves to a surreal, almost-comic, hotel scene with that prostitute, to the final act of supreme innocence. The story moves with ease from scene to scene to wash away any ambivalence you may have felt about the protagonist.

To put it another way, the hero acts out the tenet expressed in Edward Albee’s memorable line, uttered by Jerry in “The Zoo Story”: “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” There’s a very short distance the protagonist travels at the end of the story, to simply read to his child a favorite story from his own childhood, but the events preceding that simple act lend all the significance in the world to that final tableau.

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