Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Lot of Fighting and F*cking: The North Water by Ian McGuire

The North Water
by Ian McGuire
Review by Bryan Kemler

Last week, a routine phone conversation with my mother took a turn down a worn and familiar path.

“What are you reading?” she asked.

It is usually one of my favorite topics to talk about, but this time my heart sank.

The North Water,” I admitted, feeling an odd sense of shame. I was afraid she may have even heard of it.

“I’ve heard of that one,” she said. “How is it?”

I suspected that she had me on speakerphone. Still, I could not help but give her my honest summary.

“Well, Mom,” I said, “There is a lot of fighting....and a lot of fucking.”

Immediately, my father blurted out that their first guests for Tuesday night church group had arrived. “Safe travels,” he said to me, as if the devil were only a step behind, and the line went dead. Later that night, I finished the book.

I am here to report that I loved Ian McGuire’s novel. And I fully endorse it, and recommend it. Unless you are my mother, my wife, my daughter, or anyone who is kind-hearted or empathetic or decent. I suspect that the more time you spend in church, the less you will like this book. Also, if you require trigger warnings, avoid this book.

But, assuming you are an adult of reasonably-sound mind and not overly freaked-out by horrible, violent imagery, then I whole-heartedly recommend this book to you.

The North Water is a whaling story set in the 19th century. That fact will be quickly lost on you because Mr. McGuire’s writing is so immediate and urgent that it betrays time. As you may have guessed from the title, this is a sea tale, describing the voyage of The Volunteer. Picture Moby-Dick, except imagine there aren’t so many whales anymore at the time this novel takes place. The Volunteer’s whaling venture has little, if any, chance of success. Imagine the U.S. rust belt, or coal country of Appalachia. Our story unfolds in the company of poor, desperate men with obsolete skills, under the stress of failing conditions. These are the men left in the wake of changing times.

The protagonist is Patrick Sumner, a surgeon, and a man seemingly graced with many of Sherlock Holmes’ worst qualities, but few of his best. Sumner learns a cabin boy on the vessel has been raped. He begins an investigation, and the boy promptly turns up dead. But this is no Agatha Christie novel; we know exactly who did it.

The villain, Henry Drax, did it. Hats off to you, Mr. McGuire, for creating the most frightening, disgusting, deplorable and mindless villain...maybe ever. Mr. Drax is the kind of villain whose name you will remember a month later. I’m not spoiling anything; his nature is made clear from the beginning. We the readers know exactly who raped and killed the cabin boy.

But our hero, Dr. Sumner, does not. He knows only that it was one of the crew. Sumner enlists the help of Captain Brownlee, who has his own agenda—one which does not include the safe return of his vessel to its home port. The captain’s malfeasance is also quickly revealed in the story.

One thing I loved about this book is that McGuire never gives you the question you want: Who killed the cabin boy? Or, what will happen to the whaling industry? Or, what will happen to the captain? Or, what will happen to the shipmates? These are the questions you want. But the only question McGuire allows is this: Will a single character survive this ill-fated mission?

There is a segment of the story that is set on the Arctic ice where Mr. McGuire brilliantly evokes the disorienting quality of the experience, as well as the people who call that place home. This part reminds me of the writing of Paul Bowles. In fact, if you like Bowles you will probably like this book.

Another book that came to mind, mainly because of the frequent use of pronouns and violence, was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. For fun, I took a look at Blood Meridian after I finished this book to see how the level of violence compared—and it doesn’t. The North Water is like Blood Meridian on steroids. But if you liked Blood Meridian, you will probably like this book.

I once watched a large dog bullying a pack of feral Chihuahuas on a strand of beach in Mexico. I noticed that the Chihuahuas were trying to encircle the larger animal, and turned back to my beer. A moment later, the big dog howled bloody murder and I turned to see the beast spinning around and around in a frantic circle, in terror and pain. One of the Chihuahuas had him by the testicles, and was spinning around attached to the dog’s backside. Finally, the little dog let go, and the big dog ran off down the beach yelping. This novel kind of made me feel like the big dog. Except in a good way.

I will let the villain, Henry Drax, have the last words: “Oh, the others will talk and plan and make oaths and promises, but there are precious few fuckers who will do.” In The North Water, Mr. McGuire has shown himself to be one of those precious few fuckers who do.

Bryan Kemler is an ex-lawyer and a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain, but mostly a writer trying to do the hard work it takes to become an author. He is currently working on a novel called American Savage whose protagonist is a young George Washington.

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