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Life at sea cause for stormy home life

Teen struggles as family breaks apart

BY Drew Gallagher

For The Free Lance-Star

THE BOOK PAGE editor often has titles stacked up  on her shelves looking for a reviewer.  Such was the case with Nick Dybek’s “When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man” and what good fortune it turned out to be.

First, the title is brilliant.

I didn’t recall Captain Flint from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” read so many years ago, but Flint’s inclusion in the title is a nod toward the Stevenson influence in Dybek’s début novel.  It’s a novel of the sea, but very little of the action takes place upon the sea.  And I could do it a great disservice by labeling it a “coming of age” novel, but the tapestry that Dybek weaves deserves much, much better than that.

The protagonist is teenage Cal, who lives in a fisherman’s household in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-’80s.  His father is on the ocean for nearly half the year, so most of the time it’s simply Cal and his mother—who is becoming increasingly unstuck in a land and life that are foreign to her.

Cal’s mother does have a  companion in John Gaunt, who owns and runs the town and its fishing industry. When he dies, the town’s livelihood is threatened when the shipping vessels and industry are willed to his lone son who lives in New York City.  When the wayward son returns for his father’s funeral, the fishermen and community attempt to persuade him to maintain the status quo. But the son is not readily swayed.

Dybek constructs a suspenseful novel, and there is no value to the reader in popping any portion of that bubble in this review.  Suffice it to say that the quality of writing is enough to engage the reader.

“We sat in silence until we were both shivering, until the first birds swooped across the bows of the moored trawlers, and, slowly, the night came apart.”

The dilemma at the core of “When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man” is what to do when a child loves his parents as the parents’ love for each other disintegrates.  The questions and problems that face Cal may be unique to his little slice of life in the Pacific Northwest, but the themes that Dybek tackles are universal and are sure to resonate with all.  It is a splendid debut novel—title and all.

Drew Gallagher  is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.

WHEN CAPTAIN FLINT WAS STILL A GOOD MAN   

By Nick Dybek

(Penguin, $26.95, 320 pp.)

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/books/2012/04/29/life-at-sea-cause-for-stormy-home-life/

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