‘The Ruby Seat’ turns coping into mysticism

(Editor’s note: “Read in the Blue Line” normally runs on Wednesdays, but since there’s no Enterprise New Year’s Day, it’s running today.)

One way to build a cabin is to carve the bottom of each new log into the shape of the one below. This joins irregular curves into a plumb and tight-fitting wall. One word for this is “scribing.” Another is “coping.” In his debut novel, “The Ruby Seat,” Joseph Rector builds successfully with both terms.

As a precise and fluid writer, he scribes loss and addiction into the shape of mysticism and forgiveness. His prose is quick, yet observant of both the natural world and the humans that inhabit it.

Rector is also a student of coping – the process of squaring two irregular realities. Rector wrote this novel in the wake of a friend’s mortal battle with alcoholism. That despair is the uncut, foundational log of this book. Fitted above it is a sense of abiding peace, inspired by his grandmother.

Rector’s central character is an old hermit named Cyril who walks woods paths and meditates by the lake. He builds pack baskets and rows a guideboat and teaches these skills to a girl named Eva. He seems the guardian sage of a fading Adirondack Eden.

Privately, though, Cyril is nightmared by an inky, repulsive past that hints at one of the most basic coping mechanisms – alcohol. It seems, at the start of the novel, that Cyril has all but left that world behind. His present is simple, sharp and as carefully scribed as the interior corners of his hand-built home.

Nearly every male figure in “The Ruby Seat” is an alcoholic or a recovering one: Cyril, Eva’s father, their neighbor Datus. Their women are invariably harried, wronged. But the book is not about alcohol. It’s about coping through care for a piece of property and attentiveness. Rector threads these stories around craft and presence as an alternative to addiction.

As a seasonal visitor to the Adirondacks, Eva is adrift while Cyril is anchored. Her family life is uncertain, malleable and unexpected; his is locked in painful memory. From this vantage, Cyril helps Eva interpret her unsettling passage into womanhood.

But Cyril is a spirited old man edging closer and closer to spirit alone. As he prepares for the final uncertainty, he leaves his home and his faith to Eva. Most importantly, he leaves her a language of attentiveness for reading the people, places and events of her world.

Eva uses this language to complete her transfiguration into a woman. She watches her own marriage, her own children, through Cyril’s eyes. Like his namesake saint, Cyril’s heritage is a new system of letters, of turning the common speech into written scripture. Together, he and Eva embody the letters and sentences of “The Ruby Seat” that unite past and present.

The result is not always seamless. “The Ruby Seat” feels fabular, like a life of the saints, and it sometimes preaches instead of merely describes. Yet it’s a calm, hand-hewn meditation on the timbers of mortality and its formless twin, immortality. It is a beautifully imagined book and a hopeful, heartfelt epistle of a better world.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.