May 9, 2020: “The Business of Naming Things” by Michael Coffey

Hope you’re having a good weekend, Story366!

Today my son and I hiked eleven miles, the next big hurdle in getting him his Hiking merit badge. This past Sunday, we did ten, and it took me about four days to recover, everything hurting, especially my bones and organs. Today, I felt a little more stretched out, for lack of a better term, as some necessary muscles that I hadn’t been using have been used, have checked in, and were ready for assignment. I felt pretty good at the end today, like I could have done more miles, which is good, as we need to do another at-least ten-mile hike next week, a fifteen-miler the week after that, and when we’re ready, a twenty-miler, which will complete his badge.

Did I mention I took some pain killers before, during, and after today’s hike? Let’s not discount the Advil/aspirin regimen, recommended by several friends, that probably convinced my brain that the pain my body was feeling was just a figment of its own imagination and it should just keep telling my legs to move forward, one after another. Yeah, I shold probably credit the pills. Those sweet, sweet pills.

When I got home, after a sound nap, I read from Michael Coffey‘s collection, The Business of Naming Things, out from Belleview Literary Press in 2015. I’d not read anything by Coffey before this, so I dove in, ready for a whole new experience.

The opening story, “Moon Over Quabbin,” is a nice intro to the collection. It’s a shorter piece, just six pages, and kind of shows what Coffey does, how he withholds information and plots until deep into the story—or maybe that’s just shifting gears? This piece starts off with the narrator’s fascination with a woman she used to know who has moved to Iowa, but has returned, her son in a lot of legal trouble. The story seems to be about this obsession, maybe an unrequited love or an affair gone awry; we don’t, in fact, even find out our narrator is a woman until halfway through. That’s about when Coffey also reveals that the narrator’s own son was killed by roadside bandits while on vacation in Italy. Her obsession with this Iowa woman isn’t really about an attraction, but instead an empathy, having lost her own son and not wanting to see someone else suffer the same fate.

Deeper into the book, I found “I Thought You Were Dale,” about a recently divorced woman who finds out there’s a new widower in town. For various vague reasons, she immediately decides she’s going to court this man, which to her, means running into him in public and turning on the charm. She has some trouble with the former, the widower elusive, but does manage to encounter a grocery-story manager, who for various vague reasons thinks she’s the one named Dale, instead of the widower.

I circled back for the title story, “The Business of Naming Things,” the second story in the collection. This one is about William Claimer, who has made a living naming things. He started with his children, then eventually moved into licensing, which seems like a part of advertising (because it’s kind of what Don Draper does). Claimer makes a lot of money coming up with names for products. His most famous achievement is dubbing a cranberry vodka “Wolfsnow,” matching it with an Arctic wolf logo, blood fresh on its muzzle. Get it? Cold. Red. Wolfsnow! Claimer is a wealthy dude because of this, and lot of companies pay him big bucks to similarly brand their products.

Part of that life is having a condo up north, near Lake Placid, where the 1980 Winter Olympics (“Do you believe in miracles?”) were held. Claimer’s new luxury condo settlement was about to be named “Timbucto,” which, to him, didn’t capture the history of the area … when in fact, it did, as this was the name of a local all-black settlement during the abolitionist movement, started by none other than John Brown. Claimer convinced the board, however, to name it “Jump Hill” instead—pro bono—because of the ski jump platforms located nearby.

Like I said, sometimes it takes Coffey a while to get to his conflicts (which is fine—I was interested in this Claimer guy). Before we get there to any incitement, we also find out about Pall, his son, another thing he’s named. Pall used to be Paul, but in Claimer’s head, that was pretty boring, so Paul became Pall, partly for his connection to the word “pall,” which is a casket cover or a dark cloud hanging over something, and partly because of Pall Mall cigarettes. So Paul is Pall, the same name by ear, but not by spelling. Another victory for Claimer’s genius.

Anyway, Pall is a smart kid, but not motivated. This leads to that and Pall is suddenly doing eight-to-twelve in a Montreal prison for trying to smuggle five pounds of pot into Canada (the second son, in three stories, to be in prison …).

And this leads to the conflict, to the present. Claimer gets notice that his condo development is changing its name back to Timbucto, dispersing with Jump Hill. Claimer wants to meet with the board, who unanimously, decades ago, voted for his name. Who’s in charge there now? Claimer hasn’t lived in the condo for years, though Pall had lived there while attending SUNY-Plattsburgh, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border of his downfall. Claimer decides to head upstate, to deal with the renaming, and to visit Pall in the hoosegow.

When Claimer gets to his condo, he finds Pall there, freed on work release, all thanks to Kallie Ford. She’s a woman mysteriously in charge of the condo board, who’s also dating his son—though she’s having relationships with several men at once, she makes clear. Claimer basically finds that the condo community has been overrun by hippies, hippies who like abolitionist history better than Olympic history, hippies who still practice free love, and hippies who are devastated that River Phoenix has just died. There’s going to be a vigil the night of Claimer’s arrival—everyone’s going to be there.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “The Business of Naming Things,” but things get stranger, unpredictably, before anything’s resolved. It’s a loose story, for sure, one that takes its time to establish characters and situations, but I generally enjoyed reading about Claimer, his naming fetish, and how Coffey is able to use that theme, perhaps even motif, to tell a complex story about control—that’s what naming is, isn’t it, the ultimate control over something?

Michael Coffey has a unique approach to storytelling, showcased in The Business of Naming Things, making for a unique experience reading from his book. Coffey writes about characters and their obsessions as well as anyone, his sad, freaky heroes memorable, indelible.