Monday, June 24, 2013
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
Author: Nick Dybek
Thinking of the people you know the best, you think you can estimate what they'll do, what they think, who they are by the decisions they've made in the past. They might be impatient, indecisive, peacemaking, passive, aggressive, impetuous, good or just plain mischievous. But the real questions is this: can you really ever know for sure what someone might or might not become as a reflection of their choices and their desires?
With masterful storytelling and paced gravity, Nick Dybek's When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man peruses the effects of our choices and what they mean for who we are and what we might become. The smallest thing might change the course of someone's identity, but only if they want to change. The young voice of the narrator begins as reminiscent but fades to disillusioned as the story progresses.
Set in the rainy town of Loyalty Island in northeastern Washington State, the grey and misty air of a wet day in late November pervades the whole novel, despite the passage of time through the regular seasons. Cal Bollings, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, relates an incident surrounding the crab season in the 1980s when the heir of the Loyalty Island crab boats decides to break up his father's company, dooming the fisherman to unemployment. Richard Gaunt, the heir, is an interesting enigma to both Cal and the rest of the town: half crazy but strangely lucid, he is one of the few people that has left Loyalty Island for various destinations, but always returning because of some unnamed tie to the overcast land and dark waters. However, when fishing season comes around, Cal's father and the fishermen report back that Richard has gone overboard in the Alaskan oceans and drowned. Some weeks later, Cal finds out the truth and is forced to make a dreadful choice: defy his father and the men he has admired all his life, or do what might be right for the moment but will kill the island and all he has known.
The novel is told in flashback, which accounts for some of the grave maturity of Cal's voice, but is by no means dry. In some places, where the telling drops into vivid memories, we catch glimpses of what a fourteen-year-old might actually feel in this situation. Punctuated by poignant observations and proverbs, the writing is crisp and haunting, lending the book strength that the story might not have carried all of its own.
The characters themselves are striking. Cal's mother, for example, is a mystery to everyone on Loyalty Island, including his father, who goes off to fish in Alaska instead of trying to understand his wife. Even Cal is unsure of how he feels about her: love, anger, loyalty, bitterness and admiration all swirl around her at various points in the story. Richard Gaunt, one of the central figures of the story, is a beautifully developed character, not easily summarized or understood, even to an outside observer. Dybek is an incredibly intelligent observer of human nature, and When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man lives and breathes with human life.
Cal's father, too, is a mixed figure, and we spend the whole story trying to determine whether he is a hero or a villain- which, of course, is the point. Perhaps we are all good and bad, and one decision can make us good just for the moment. After all, who is so bad they cannot be redeemed, and who is so good they cannot fall?
Dybek illustrates a great understanding of human nature and the suspense to tell a riveting, moving story. This novel is heavy, but not so much so that it will drown readers. Dybek is brave enough to ask questions that he doesn't answer, leaving readers to wonder what it all meant: hard for those looking for just entertainment, but for those who have the time to wonder, this story will echo.
Because it's relatively recent, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is available for $10.28 in hardback from Amazon, or $9.99 on the Kindle. I was lucky enough to spot mine of the shelf of a used book shop for $2.00, so they are floating around out there, and your library might have a copy if you live in a city or a larger town. Make time for this novel, though; not a lighthearted read, but certainly valuable just for the quality of the storytelling. I would relate its tone to American Rust, which I reviewed late last year, but infinitely better done.