There’s the makings of a nice short story here, but it’s been padded with filler and not truly fleshed out properly to make a novel.
The basic idea intrigued me and had me hooked (and really is what had me stay with the book). A man (Culann Riordan) runs away to Alaska to avoid prosecution for his sexual encounter with a 16-year-old girl. The sexual encounter may or may not have actually happened. You have to stick with the story, though we are inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth when he tells people initially, that it was nothing more than a kiss on the forehead.
Culann joins a fishing boat, where he does a poor job of holding on to his stomach contents and making friends. He is battered, beaten and abused. The captain of the boat seems a strange man, never-changing his course and clearly searching for something other than fish. When Culann hauls in a strange orb, the fishing is cut short and the boat returns home. But before getting there, all mechanical devices on the ship cut out. When the men finally make their way to their Alaskan village, people start to die off. Everyone dies, but Culann and the village dogs, who follow him around and obey his every command.
Most readers will already understand the significance of what’s going on. The title of the book, the names of the characters … it’s a little painfully obvious what is going to happen. But this is okay … it’s not always the tale itself… it’s the telling of the tale that often counts. We know Romeo and Juliet will both die, but still people go to the play and the movies and read the script. We know Han and Luke will save the day in Star Wars, and be awarded medals by Princess Leia, but still we see the movie.
So why do we want to continue with reading this book…? Really. Why?
Culann is not made to be a likeable character. While he potentially redeems himself, he is a twisted man. Constantly referred to as “pervert” by the town’s-people, the moniker infuses itself on the reader. We have no reason to think he’s NOT a pervert. His three dalliances with members of the opposite sex in this novelette are clumsy and fruitless and he comes across as a ‘whack-job.’ But what’s more… none of his encounters propel the story forward. And if they don’t move the story, then they must be there to describe character. And if that’s the case… this character is pathetic and certainly does not attract our sympathies.
And whereas the character has flaws that prevent him from being a hero that we root for, the writing itself fails to draw the reader in to the story. I heard it over and over and over again in my undergraduate writing classes: “Show, don’t tell.” Sometimes it’s hard to explain just what that means, but Hlinak is an easy example of someone telling a story, rather than showing us the story. He tells us when the character is mad or sad or angry, instead of showing us that the character is such.
In many ways, this ‘style’ makes it immensely easy to read, but again, telling a story doesn’t draw anyone in. Here is where the story should have been more aptly built upon to make it novel-length. Here’s a random sample of description from the book:
The table got quiet after the game. The four concentrated on eating their cod and drinking their water. Culann couldn’t stop thinking about how good a frothy draft beer would taste right now. His next drink was a month away. He hoped a little chatter would take his mind off his thirst.
Everything in this simple paragraph is telling the reader something, rather than showing the reader what it’s like to be there. It’s frustrating to read this kind of writing in a novel.
And one last picky point… we spend so much time on the boat with Culann, watching him, a “greenhorn,” make every mistake possible, get so sick he can barely stand, and bear the brunt of fish-slap after fish-slap. And what does this have to do with any of the rest of the novel? I understand why he’s on the boat and what he has to do from there, but to spend as much time as we did, seems like wasted time (unless it was character-building, which again makes him out to be a pretty pathetic character).
I enjoy off-beat, even dangerous fiction. (See my review of Blope!) But even ‘bizarro’ fiction needs to hold together with some basic tenets, such as character and story-telling.
Looking for a good book? I think you will want to keep looking.
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author: Matt Hlinak
publisher: Bizarro Press
paperback, 200 pages