Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Calm At Sunset, Calm At Dawn - Paul Watkins

'living in fear'

The name of James Daunt was previously familiar to those who had had the pleasure of browsing and buying in one of the six bookshops that bear his name (perhaps most beautiful amongst these is the flagship store in Marylebone - feast your eyes book lovers). Then he went and got himself appointed as the new man at the head of Waterstones, charged with reviving their flagging fortunes and re-instilling the importance of the bookseller within the bookstore. Daunt also have their own publishing arm which started in 2010 publishing works by Saki and Sybille Bedford. Next on their list is this novel from American Paul Watkins, who worked for six years as a crewman on a deep-sea fishing boat before writing this coming of age novel originally published in 1989 (also adapted into a hilariously awful looking TV movie). After having enjoyed Redmond O'Hanlon's non-fictional treatment of the same terrain in Trawler I was tempted to feel the biting wind and salty spray in my face once again and signed up for another brutal trip out to sea.

I don't want to sound like a broken record but I find myself one again having to comment on the design of a book from a small publisher. I recently gave Coffee House Press a hard time over Leaving The Atocha Station (now, thankfully, treated to far more deserving edition from Granta) and I'm afraid I have to have a little dig at Daunt for this truly horrendous cover. It almost looks worse in the flesh but you can see above how the bold typeface and simple design make it look not just like a self-published book but like a self-published self-help book which makes me want to throw it across the room or at least hide it in a brown paper covering whilst reading (I think I'd rather someone saw me reading 50 Shades of Grey on the tube). It's such a shame because the french flaps and quality of the materials inside are all lovely, it's just the cover that really lets it down.

Anyway, on the Rhode Island coast we meet 20 year old James Pfeiffer who has been expelled from college after an altercation with another student and is currently working in a dead-end job at the local fish-packing plant. Even the attentions of the boss's daughter aren't enough to compensate for the sheer tedium of his working day.

Everything I owned smelled of fish.
Clothes I'd never even worn to the plant smelled of fish
Fish scales fell out of my hair each time I scratched my head. Even after showering and washing and combing they still flickered down onto my shoulders.
In my dreams, I became a fish and swam down to the wreck of my grandfather's trawler...
As hinted at end there, fishing has been in Pfeiffer's family for generations. His grandfather fished and perished at sea, his father fishes to this day but doesn't want his son to follow in his footsteps for reasons that he will only learn about fully later. Until then his father's reticence combined with the allure of sea-faring tales and superstitions make Pfeiffer feel as though something is being withheld from him to which he is entitled and attracted - 'It seemed to me that my father had found something so precious he couldn't bear to share it with his sons.'

Pfeiffer has dreams of running his own boat one day but in the meantime he keeps trying to get himself on board another as crew. There is a catch-22 scenario wherein skippers will only take on those with experience leaving those without having to lie or force their hand in order to earn a berth and possibly work for little or no money. Pfeiffer eventually gets on board a scallop trawler and we follow him out onto treacherous seas with a crew of frankly terrifying shipmates where death or injury are always just a big enough wave away. I was reading this book primarily for the thrill of those scenes of tough work, danger and fraught relationships and it doesn't disappoint. Watkins makes great use of his own experience to describe the disorientation of working away from land, in shift patterns that leave you always exhausted, in freezing conditions, under constant pressure but with the potential always there to make enough money to get started on his dream.

Plot-wise the book is set on far more rigid lines than the choppy waters it sails on. There aren't many surprises in this tale of a son proving himself to his father (and himself) and a father revealing himself and his fears to his son. The Pfeiffer's are a pretty basically drawn family; the father quietly going about his business trying to make a better life for his sons, the mother desperately trying to steer her son away from the sea that claimed her own father and growing in voice in response to his strengthening resolve to make his own decisions and own mistakes. James's brother even provides some welcome light relief with his various business schemes building up to eventual failure and his terrible words of advice and wisdom. Watkins does manage to build up some serious tension however, particularly towards the close and there are several sections that you read whilst almost holding your breath. Personally I'm terrified of the sea and what lies beneath the waves and each of the characters in this book have their own personal reactions to the awesome power of that element we cannot control. Fear is everywhere but often it isn't the fear of what we cannot know or foresee but the fear of finding oneself falling short, a fear of personal failure. As his father points out to his mother - 'You're living in fear of the wrong things' - a statement that could only be made seriously in this very male orientated world and leading immediately to her response - 'Don't you talk to me about living in fear.'


Max Cairnduff 25 July 2012 at 10:20  

It is a terrible cover.

Not sure about this one. It sounds fine, but not something I need to read and father-son tales don't really speak to me.

Have you read Izzo's The Sailors? I haven't yet but it occurs to me you might like it.

William Rycroft 26 July 2012 at 10:03  

I haven't read The Sailors, Max, no. I shall investigate further.

John Self 31 July 2012 at 22:26  

Interesting to see this one reissued. Watkins was published for a long time in the UK by Faber, and I remember contemplating his books at length without ever buying or reading one. I remember they sounded a bit too Tim Winton, men-doing-manly-things-with-the-elements for my tastes. I also recall he had a brooding, enviably handsome Auster-like author pic on the back covers; another bad reason to resist.

Like Max, I can't see myself rushing to correct my old omissions, but it's one to bear in mind, for sure.

William Rycroft 1 August 2012 at 07:53  

Ha! Your prejudice may be spot on, there's certainly that element in this book (My only experience of Winton is Breath which I thought was great). The author photo is now a shot of a very young looking chap on a trawler, more fresh-faced youth than brooding looker, so maybe that might lower your defences. Not a book I'd press on people like I might Redmond O'Hanlon's however.

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