A GLANCE at several students repeatedly sifting through the dirt they squatted in under a noon summer sun was my first, and last, exposure to archaeology. However, Steve Ludin, an archaeologist and fiction writer, has altered my first impression; revealed in A Ruin of Feathers (TSAR, 242 pages, $11.95 paper) is the inexhaustible quest for answers within ancient myths that drives many pursuers of this historical science.
Under the pretence of exploring worlds buried beneath ancient tombs, a cynical protagonist -Severan Walker - actually journeys into the hidden secrets of the self. Ludin's short-story cycle begins in rural Ontario and then moves to the interior of Central America, where Severan encounters hostile natural and political environments, ancient ruins, intuitive Native peoples, and eventually his own parents and past.
The tone is distant. Severan's frequent bouts of perplexed introspection mirror his detachment and inner turmoil. The collection's descriptions of the esoteric are vivid and pervasive, and impress as intriguing even if they are not always fully explanatory.
The continuity of the cycle is broken by two stories: "Quashie Trapp Blacklight" and "Punta Gorda Donna." Both digress into quasisurreal worlds where suitcases walk, bats wear pyjamas, and tarantulas spy. Over all, however, Ludin uses the same eerie power of myth for which Severan searches to create an original and intense debut collection.