When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man. By Nick Dybek.
VAST, turbulent and mysterious, the sea is a gift to storytellers. It is a perilous passageway to new lands and a bountiful source of food, beauty and lore.
Life on the rough seas turns ordinary men into heroes, but also into scoundrels and martyrs. No wonder these sodden, salt-crusted figures populate some of the best fiction.
Nick Dybek has turned to such enduring tropes for his debut novel, “When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man”.
His story is set on Loyalty Island, a thin peninsula off the coast of Washington state, full of “the stink of herring, nickel paint, and kelp rotting on moorings and beaches”.
In this remote fishing village, manhood means spending half of every year on a boat near Alaska, winching up crab pots from the freezing depths of the Bering Sea.
The women stay behind, the boys hope to join their fathers and the men return home.
If they are lucky, as shaggy, greasy strangers, telling stories that "were grey, drenched in icy slime. They made you gasp but not smile, and the men who told them smiled—if at all—only at the gasps."
The book begins with the village on the edge of a crisis that occurred when the narrator was a boy.
John Gaunt, the owner of the fishing fleet, is on his death bed. He is the third generation of Gaunts to steer the fate and fortunes of Loyalty Island, and he has apparently left everything to his son Richard.
But the proud locals loathe Richard. They know that he is no fisherman, but an urban and effeminate man, not yet 30, who left town to go to university and rarely comes back.
Just as the boats are primed for another season, Richard seems ready to sell to the Japanese. The people of Loyalty want only what they already have, and they are prepared to guard it fiercely.
This story is recalled from a distance by Cal. Older and living anonymously in Chicago, Cal was 14 when Loyalty Island faced this uncertain future—an age when he could still lionise his father and the other fishermen, but also be a keen observer.
"I was still young enough to believe that the important questions had been answered somewhere," he muses, a reminiscence with hard edges.
As a child he sensed that something was not right between his parents, who lived "like strangers on an aeroplane, squeezing politely past each other in tight spaces".
But he adored them both—his gruff but gentle father ("hands as thick as strip steaks") and his melancholic wisp of a mother, who was wooed to Loyalty but never fitted in.
Instead she found nourishment in her substantial record collection (from Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" to John Coltrane's "bawling" sax), foreign films and John Gaunt, her only local friend.
A seafaring life may be full of suffering, but it is also full of a macho romance that lends a larger sense of destiny to it all.
Mr Dybek considers several similarly timeworn themes, such as the spaces that grow between people, and especially the currents that set fathers and sons adrift.
At times this book bears the stain of a debut: the circumstances too implausible; the kids too precocious; the similes too frequent and the album references too cool (a Facebook-ready list).
But there is also wisdom here, and the momentum of a thrilling yarn, delivered as if by a scarred man by the consoling light of a fire.