Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fisher of Men

There are quite a few types of books that I'm automatically drawn towards. I like fantasy, I like science fiction, I like bizarre modern fiction, I like novels that deal with dreams and alternate realities. In recent years, I've also begun to automatically pick up books that are set in or predominantly feature the San Francisco Bay Area. That's pure parochialism on my part, but it's paid off well, in part because it has led me to check out entries from authors I haven't heard of or genres that I tend not to explore.

Take "The Fisherman's Son." I first heard about this book from my mom, and as soon as she mentioned that it was set in Half Moon Bay, I knew that I'd be reading it, no matter what. I'm definitely not an expert on HMB, having only visited it a handful of times, but it's an interesting part of our local fabric, and setting a whole novel there seemed like it would have to lead to some edification for me.

I'm not exactly sure how you would characterize the book, but perhaps "character study" comes closest. The main character is Neil, the titular fisherman's son. Most of the story is told in flashbacks that cover the majority of his life, from early childhood memories through adulthood, with the main focus on his early teen years when he first starts assisting his dad on the boat. Occasional italicized interludes report on his current predicament in the present day, so much of the book has an inherent tension as we try to anticipate how the decisions he's making will lead him to his plight.

The book has perhaps a half-dozen or so other characters who are all very well developed and form a pretty compelling, if insular, universe. The most important figure is his dad, the fisherman; the boy doesn't feel too connected with his father, even when they spend days on the boat together, and we get a lot of insight from the boy's interior monologue as he tries to understand what makes this man do the things he does. His father sometimes seems uncaring or cruel to the world around him, but he isn't at all a bad man, just one whose moral code has been shaped by the harsh realities of the sea.

The other family members, a mother and brother Paul, are more tied to the land, and as Neil moves more into his father's orbit, the other two drift farther away from him. At the same time, Neil develops a second family from his father's friends, other career fishermen, several of who are immigrants. There's some nice dialect here; dialect usually annoys me, but it's used in small quantities and to good effect here.

The book felt extremely well grounded in the local scenery. I don't think it's at all necessary to enjoy the book, but I was a bit thrilled to find that so much of the fishermen's surroundings match my own: Point Reyes, Pillar Point, the Golden Gate, Ano Nuevo, and more. That made me much more willing to go along with the stuff I didn't already know, like the different kind of fish that they catch at different seasons and in different areas (salmon close to the coast, tuna only rarely and very far out to sea).

The characters are all very focused on their present, but periodically events from the real world creep in in interesting ways. Some of these are large upheavels: Ott flees Germany to avoid conscription in the Wehrmacht, and Neil is eventually drafted and sent to war (I'm a bit unclear on whether it's Korea or Vietnam). The more interesting ones for me are smaller and more local: the government pays to build a breakwater in Half Moon Bay, which eliminates the storms that used to batter the coast and sets up a safe harbor, but in return the harbor is flooded with out-of-towners who want to play at sailing. We also see, from a distance, the suburbanization of San Francisco, which has no immediate impact on the fishermen but changes the look of their community.

Anyways. It's a cool book; the author really knows his stuff, and has a worthwhile story to tell. (Well, I shouldn't oversell that - the story is more of an elegant framework around which to weave really well-developed characters, which are the main focus.) I'm glad I gave it a read, and am looking forward to my next crack at local color in some other book.

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