UAF professor's quirky tales deserve an 'A'

Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2003

"The Ecumenical Cruise and Other Three-Legged Chicken Philosophy Tales" is a pleasant surprise. The cover, author Walter Benesch's credentials as a University of Alaska Fairbanks philosophy professor and his previous book (a text on comparative philosophy) led this reader to expect something, well, a bit more didactic.

Instead, the volume contains 18 quirky fictional short stories that no one can accuse of lecturing. In tone they range from sly humor to macabre, yet all share a sharp wit and satirical bent. They are reminiscent, in turns, of works by masters such as Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe.

Introducing each, Benesch places excerpts from the Bible, the Koran and other sacred and wisdom texts from around the world. Concepts from the introductory quotations inspire, but do not limit, his imagination. He takes the world's great revelations and spins them into fantasies, often tweaking them in the process.

In a few stories, the links are clear, such as the brief "Satori at the Doughnut Stop," where a Buddhist-inspired dialogue between a doughnut and its hole explores the concepts of being and nothingness:

"... But is a hole then not something?"complains Benesch's philosophic pastry. "Have holes no claim on being? Could one not command another, and quite intelligibly I might add, to 'create a hole,' to 'dig a hole,' to 'locate a hole' or, God forbid, even to 'fix a hole'?"

Yet in many other stories, such as the creepy "Helen Morley's Finger," the classic commentaries remain tangential to tales that stand quite well on their own.

Great ideas and strong scholarship enhance literature. In Benesch's stories his firm grasp of intellectual history, coupled with his refusal to take himself too seriously, add depth and sparkle to his work. For example, the first and last stories, "Queen Vashti Goes to Heaven" and "The Ecumenical Cruise 2020 A.D." look at the question of who is worthy to attain heaven in a manner that is probing as well as entertaining.

Religion is a recurring theme, one that Benesch both spoofs and ponders. Readers uncomfortable with mixing religion and sarcasm might question his taste, but skeptics will love his send-ups of the ultra-devout.

In "When Siva Lost His Cool," a Christian knight and Muslim warrior meet at the gates of the afterworld following a pitched battle during the Crusades. They continue to spar verbally, debating what lies behind the door of judgment ahead:

"... Devil's seed, it is Jesus who stands there with Mohammed gift-wrapped in chains, and he will bind him about your scrawny Saracen's neck and drop you from the skies into the hot place!"

"... Dog's excrement, it is Allah who shall seize you by your worthless infidel's ears and drag you to the brink of hell and boot you in! And good riddance!"

Instead, they encounter the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, who condemn the men to reincarnate and continue their battle for another millennium, alternating sides and throwing the Jews into the struggle as well.

Benesch's universe is an ironic one, ruled by an avuncular and distracted God, assisted by a supporting cast of confused deities and a heavenly host that sometimes falls short on reliability. It is a universe where God and Satan can casually get together to "do lunch," as in "Job Remembered." Satan asks for a rematch on the old Job bet, reversing roles and offering up his own faithful servant, the greedy Orville, an attorney in Poughkeepsie.

Other recurring themes are the unforeseen effects of technologies on our souls and the perils of life in academia. For example, in "Passover in the English Department," circumstances force professors, who would rather focus on poetry and grammar, to grapple with impending layoffs and what one calls "a veritable voidness of muses in general."

Benesch writes with such a crisp, engaging style that the book seems too short.

That "three-legged chicken" of the title, he explains, comes from a Chinese philosopher more than 2,000 years ago. The sage noted that in addition to the two, standard-issue physical legs chickens carry, human observers add a third leg, in the form of the concept "chicken leg" in our minds.

His stories, Benesch says, examine "a 'mind egg' that such a chicken might conceivably lay."

If Benesch has laid any egg of his own with this book, it is a golden one. These are delightful stories worth crowing over.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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