Monday, March 26, 2012

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

title: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man [purchase here]
author: Nick Dybek
genre: fiction
pages: 304
date: due out in hardcover April 12, 2012 
source:  I received an advanced reader's copy from Riverhead Books via 
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

This evening, the conclusion of Nick Dybek's debut novel left me on the verge of doing two things that I seldom do:
1) missing my subway stop
2) crying in public

I say "on the verge of" because, though teary-eyed, I was narrowly able to squeeze out of the closing doors.  Damn you, Dybek!

Point being: When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man was THAT captivating a read.  Especially the last half. Straphangers, you have been warned.

Dybek's story follows fifteen-year-old Cal during a pivotal time in his life in Loyalty Island, a seaside community that owes their livelihood to the winter king crabbing season in Alaska and the Gaunt family.  When John Gaunt, the patriarch whose very lineage is the core of town mythology, passes away, the fate of the town is left  in the hands of Richard, his prodigal son.  What Richard decides to do with the crabbing fleet will have huge ramifications, and what happens next begs the question:  how far would you go to protect and preserve your way of life? 

In what could have been merely a typical boy-becomes-man/coming-of-age story, Dybek manages to uniquely and originally tackle some pretty major themes/issues:  loyalty; honor; moral relativism (sidebar: the majority of the book metaphorically lives in a moral "gray area" and literally takes place in one of the grayest areas of the country. Pretty damn perfect); the fact that, to some extent, we all end up becoming our parents (sometimes the best of them, sometimes the worst) despite our youthful Sisyphean efforts; sacrifice; self-determination..

Dybek's strength is the story, and in the deliberate, minimalistic voice which he expertly wields to tell it. (By minimalistic,  I mean that I was pleased that there wasn't any noticeable excess, that stuff that some debut/newer authors tend to pack into their work to make it seem more "writer-ly".  The telling fit the tale).  And the characters Dybek creates are as complex and dynamic as his prose is deliberate and tight.  He's created multiple scenes that have stuck with me throughout my reading of the book.  One occurs fairly early on, a scene where Cal's mother (to call her a music-lover would be an understatement) asks Cal to pick a record for them to listen to as they cook and dance to celebrate the finding of Cal's father's boat, which had briefly lost radio contact with the outside world.  Cal selects Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time** (because he liked the title).    I *wish* I could put an excerpt here, but I have the uncorrected proof and am thus not supposed to quote from it. Womp womp (says the sad trumpet).  Regardless, super powerful image (the dichotomy of Cal and his mother celebratory dancing and the haunting musical selection) , and one of many, in this precise, incredibly tight narrative. 

Mini-spoiler:  if you're expecting a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy ending, this is not the novel for you (hence my hasty, leaky-eyed narrow escape from the N train this evening).  From page 290 on, even though I KNEW in my gut what was about to happen, the last 14 pages were CRUSHING and left me feeling so incredibly conflicted.   Well done.

Rubric rating: 7.5.  Impressive debut.  I'm excited to see what the future holds for Dybek. 

 **n.b. Messiaen wrote this piece while interned in a German prison camp in 1940.  Super haunting.  Personally, my kitchen dancing usually involves 80s new wave or Otis Redding a la Ducky in Pretty in Pink, but to each his own.  You can listen to Quartet for the End of Time for free here, courtesy of the Luna Nova Ensemble.

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