Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek

I have always been attracted to the sea but also wary of it. It is the source of life, often benevolent, but it can turn threatening and violent in an instant swallowing lives whole. Those people for whom it is a source of income hold a healthy respect for it, always conscious that it can both give and take away, their livelihood, their life. It offers a hard and fickle life and yet it is the only life that many fishermen know and or would choose. When this way of life is threatened, as it is in Nick Dybek's debut novel When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, the consequences can be as unforgiving as a sudden squall at sea.

The men of Loyalty Island, off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, are Alaskan king crab fishermen. It is the only life that they know, sailing away from their homes and families for the season to make their living in the remote, cold Alaskan waters. But these men who face hardship everyday on their boats do not control their own living. Local man John Gaunt owns everything connected to the fishing industry on Loyalty Island and the summer he dies, the community is on the cusp of unwelcome and unwanted change. Gaunt's only son Richard inherits the fleet, and in essence the men as well, but he wants nothing to do with it and threatens to sell it all to the Japanese and that is the catalyst for the terrible and somehow unavoidable events that come to pass after his announcement.

Cal is fifteen the summer in question but he is narrating the events in hindsight thirteen years on, 28 now and the weight of his silence is finally too crushing to keep. John Gaunt is ill as the story opens and Cal and his parents are called to visit with the dying man. His father is a captain in Gaunt's fleet. His mother is pregnant with their second child. Cal doesn't completely understand the undercurrents and tensions floating about as John Gaunt dies by inches. What he does understand is that his parents' marriage seems to be strained and crumbling even before Richard Gaunt comes to town to claim and then destroy his inheritance in front of the very men who depend on him for their livelihoods.

As the men band together to ensure that their imminent fishing season is unaffected, everything is changing in Cal's life. The men leave for the Alaskan waters and his mother escapes to an old friend's in Santa Cruz abandoning Cal. Cal navigates his new life at a neighbor's, going through the motions and recognizing deep in his bones the loneliness and despair that drove his mother to finally break free of the stagnation she felt on Loyalty Island. He misses his connection to his parents: the memory of his father telling him tales of when Captain Flint was still good and his mother's beloved music pulsing through the house and so he sneaks home in hopes of recapturing the life he misses. Instead he stumbles across a discovery at once terrible and enormous. But as Jim Hawkins found in Treasure Island, once you've discovered the adults' secret, no good will come of it; there is no turning back. There is a sickening sense of looming injustice and selfishness throughout the novel and in the end, no matter how many years have passed, there is no escape from Loyalty Island and the events of that long year.

This is an unrelentingly dark and atmospheric novel rife with deception and betrayal. The moral dilemma at its core is horrifying and yet somehow not unexpected. The pace of the narrative is slow and forbidding but no less suspenseful for all that. The characters are all so isolated and disconnected from one another that no decision seems beyond them, no matter how desperate, deliberate, or morally bankrupt. Occasionally the writing is overdone and crammed with too many obvious similies. In spite of this and the slowness of the tale, the book is oddly riveting and although it has its share of flaws, it bodes well for Dybek's future novels.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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