Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: April 12th 2012
Those of us left behind dug in. Through the fall, through the winter, it seemed we lived on the border of a real life lived elsewhere. It seemed that the absence was ours somehow, not theirs, that we were the ones who were gone.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is an aptly titled debut that takes place on Loyalty Island, off of Washington State, where the crab fishing industry, as managed by the same family for a hundred years, is all that sustains the town and its people. Until, that is, the patriarch, John Gaunt, dies and leaves everything to his only son and heir, Richard, who has spent his young life traveling around the United States and living off the company’s profits but shown no inclination to work in the industry or in any other for that matter. For all of the men who hunt crab this becomes a tense time, as they have no way of knowing whether this stranger will respect their way of life or will sell it off to make a quick profit. They don’t have long to wait until, in dramatic fashion, Richard lets them know that the company, all its equipment and fishing licenses in the Bering Sea will be sold to a Japanese company. Suddenly a way of life is about to end and a town to die.
In the midst of this implosion is the Bollings family: Cal and his father and mother. It’s clear, right from the beginning that even the unusual nature of life with a man who is away six months out of the year cannot explain these family dynamics. Cal’s mother is a transplant from Southern California who marries his father after dating him for only a few months. Despite her husband’s efforts to create a space for her in their home, a place of comfort while he is gone, she never seems to settle in and spends most of her time in this room listening to her massive record collection for hours. Now she is pregnant with their second child, their financial future has been destroyed and her desire to get out of town and back to Santa Clara and her old life is palpable.
For Cal, it is no less complicated. He loves and admires his father but in the span of the six months every year when he is gone, he loses teeth, masters new sports, takes new subjects at school, stops watching cartoons and grows. When he returns each summer both try to reconnect, but as Cal gets older it gets harder and harder. His father confesses to him
“Because when you’re out there, all you can think about is back here, and when you’re back here, all you can think about is out there.”
The situation with the company seems to resolve itself when Richard is convinced to try crab fishing, just once, before making a decision that will impact so many lives. At the same time, Cal’s mother decides that she’s not going to spend her last trimester alone so she’s going back to California. When she asks the teenage Cal to accompany her he is unequivocal in his dismissal. She departs without saying goodbye and the next day his father informs him that he can’t stay alone in the house but will be living with another fisherman’s family. They have a son his age, with whom Cal has a limited relationship. Shortly after everyone has departed and Cal is settling into his new life the word comes from the Bering Sea that Richard has fallen overboard. His death means that Cal’s father and three other senior members of the company will take over. It would seem that the prayers of Loyalty Island have been answered and life will continue on as usual.
Debut author Nick Dybek explores so many relationships in When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man that it would be easy to get lost, except for his ability to keep the reader focused. For the most part we follow Cal and the book is told from his viewpoint, in all its teen angst and confusion. His mother’s disloyalty in leaving his father creates a rift between them and he refuses to take her calls. His father is away and his home empty so he struggles with a loneliness that feels unseemly and can’t be shared with his new roommate, Jamie. Instead they settle into a game of insult tennis, batting crudities back and forth between them. It isn’t until a month after the men have left that Cal decides to go back to his family’s house, in part to pick up his mother’s VCR and her collection of Japanese movies, which he intends to give to Jamie as a way of saying thank you for bearing with his encroachment and hostility. Once in the home, Dybek uses what Cal finds to create another layer of complexity and confusion in the novel, but does so with such careful writing that it will be several chapters before we know what we think we know but are not sure. Even then, the mystery and tension continue to grow, mainly because they are on an emotional level. Cal involves Jamie, who has become a friend, and the two embark on a covert mission that ultimately leaves them parsing morality in a situation most adults would find incomprehensible.
In When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, Dybek blends the microcosm of family life and its tensions with the larger issues of surviving a changing economy, adaptation, tradition and what a man will do to support his family. There are no clear cut heroes in the book, leaving it to the reader to puzzle where the lines are between right and wrong. Combined with the vivid descriptions of the dangerous life of a deep sea fisherman, the feelings aroused are unsettling and leave one on the unsure footing of a rolling deck. One of the victims of all this is the fragile relationship between Cal and his father. Although not close, Cal still looks up to him and when that faith is tested on a large scale his actions surprise even himself.