City Lights Books: 164 pp., $13.95 paper
In Ben Ehrenreich’s second novel, “Ether,” a compact work of biblical noir, several small creatures meet harsh ends, sometimes eulogized by dismissive laughter, sometimes clumsily mourned. A mouse is stomped on, its clotting blood striating the pavement. Hit by a car, a pigeon lands in a flurry of feathers on the road. A deaf and mute woman rescues a hummingbird whose heart is still whirring, but soon death steals it away too. When it comes to the body count of woodland cuties, “Ether” is like “Bambi” directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Southern California writer Ehrenreich, who recently won a National Magazine Award for “The End,” his Los Angeles magazine feature detailing the procedural odyssey from deathbed to six feet under or a pile of ashes, calls these deaths “the ordinary apocalypses that join to make a day,” along with fires and floods, the struggles to eat and mate. No higher power seems particularly sympathetic, yet alone responsible or even watching. But we can’t be sure. Has the creator become bored by what he sees, abandoning us like a TV show that’s failed to capture his attention but continues to chatter on in an empty room?
“Ether” can’t really answer the question, but it sends out fine fictional emissaries to explore the matter and artfully roam the concocted landscape, the most enigmatic of which is a man known only as the stranger. Dressed in a stained white suit and jazzy lace-up shoes like a Dust Bowl-era entertainer hit with hard times, he’s a fallen god in search of his power, testing out what he has left in encounters with desperate outcasts: a lady barfly who nervously flirts with him; an odorous bagman with a mystic connection to his stuff; four violence-prone boys. The characters are familiar from hard-boiled fiction, but Ehrenreich delights in fleshing out their known contours, playfully exposing the strings on his puppets instead of trying to hide them.
Eager to “get back on top,” the stranger says like a pining junkie, he visits a down-and-out Gabriel to retrieve a package wrapped in oil-stained brown paper and bound with twine. Another visit to the other archangel, a law-school student and suburbanite named Michael, doesn’t go as well. It’s hard to ever feel too sorry for the stranger, though. With his quick cruelty and patronization, the stranger is nobody to root for — but it’s notable that if only because he exists in human form, he can’t help but stir up flickers of empathy. In “Ether,” God is one of us: fickle, self-obsessed, senselessly malicious.
The other character that the stranger is often beseeching in “Ether” is the author himself, an insomniac who ponders the veracity of his creations in pensive sections written in the first person. The author and the stranger have a relationship that’s family in some ways and impersonal in others. Sparing barely more feeling for his spawn than the stranger shows for the pitiful people he meets, the author tries to instruct when the stranger only wants answers. Sound familiar, believer?
As anyone who’s spent a little time with the Bible knows, the revelations are actually few and far between but flip the book open and chances are somebody’s walking somewhere, most likely in the desert. (Hey, not everything can be the rock ‘em, sock ‘em highs of Genesis.) “Ether” borrows that ambulating pace, which can sap energy from the narrative sometimes, even when suffused with apocalyptic urgency.
But it gives you time to drink in Ehrenreich’s sculpted sentences, sturdy things built of simple but beautiful materials. Like furniture made by the Shakers — making something well was “an act of prayer” for the Protestant aesthetes — Ehrenreich revels in the journeyman’s work of his craft, offering language for the weary and the dispossessed, the rich or the poor. Have a seat; stay awhile.