When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, by Nick Dybek
Every fall, the men of Loyalty Island head north from the Olympic Peninsula to spend the winter catching king crab on the Bering Sea. Their dangerous occupation keeps food on the table but constantly threatens to leave empty seats around it.
Cal is too young to go, but he is old enough to feel the tension between his parents over whether he will eventually follow in his father’s wake, and to wonder about his mother’s relationship with John Gaunt, owner of the fleet. Then Gaunt dies suddenly, leaving the business in the hands of his son, who seems intent on selling away the fishermen’s livelihood. As winter comes on, Cal stumbles onto evidence that his father may have gone to extremes to salvage their way of life. His suspicions deepening and his moral compass shattered, he is forced to make a terrible choice.
There is a scene in this book where the main protagonists, two fourteen-year-old boys, go see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the theater in 1984. Afterward, pretending to be Roger Ebert, one boy asks his friend “Thumbs up or thumbs down?” The other boy replies, “The racism here was just too much to overcome. This film strikes me as an apologist’s take on imperialism.” The first boy agrees.
This scene made me realize what felt so off about this book, even when I wanted to like it. And the problem is that the author is far too present. You hear the words coming out of Nick Dybek’s mouth, instead of the mouths of his characters. I mean, this scene is a perfect example: I cannot imagine that response from a fourteen-year-old boy in 1984. It reeks of current political correctness and crit theory speak. (For fun, I looked up Ebert’s original review of Temple of Doom, and there was zero mention of racism or imperialism. He loved the movie without equivocation.)
And that, ultimately, is why this book doesn’t really work. It feels calculated. It feels written and unnatural, the characters indistinct and forced. The author is a product of MFA programs, and When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man is clearly the product of workshops. It makes me sad, really, because I do love the title, the setting, and the premise. But the way it’s written, I felt nothing. Not a thing. Except maybe annoyance at the name-dropping of old records and foreign movies (many of which I actually like).
The dilemma at the heart of the novel is compelling, as is the setting, but the characterization completely sucked the urgency out of all of it. I didn’t feel the protagonists actually wrestling with any of it, and all of the characters speak and act with the same sort of sly quirkiness that in no way resembles any human behavior I’ve ever actually encountered. The only people who felt real to me were those absent for most of the book. And let’s be honest here — nothing much happens until the last 35 pages or so.
There is some nice prose here, and I have a bit of a knee-jerk love for anything having to do with the cold sea. But, for me, the novel doesn’t live up to its fantastic title or cover design, and I just couldn’t get excited about it.
Disclaimer: The publisher gave me a free copy of this book to review.