Layering the practical and fanciful, clipping on imagined lifesavers, mentally fingering distant places and people and things to rest the crazed and rumpled gaze, Gibson tersely and swiftly cobbles a stubbornly practical story of what it is to be a crabber on the Bering Sea. No one would bother making any of this up. With no one to count on but each other, driven to excesses of hatred and affect More
Crab fishing is one of those brutal occupations that summons and feeds on the supple energy and fearless bravado of the young. No matter the pay, that ostensible motive only visited ashore, the job grabs you and burns through you till you’re running on nerve and blind instinct, till there is nothing left. Like war, another purview of the young, the only thing that carries you is the camaraderie of others, those wading through the shitstorm alongside, as deep in as you are. They are the only others who know what is at risk, what’s likely to be gained and lost—so, not what it is like, but what it wordlessly is.
Yet words we must have. Fashioning a story like Michael Gibson’s Arctic Solace is like knitting a seaman’s sweater. You need the right stuff spun with the lanolin still in it to shed water, with the endless looping and clicking needles pulled tight enough all the way, so it becomes one thing. Even so you need to wear it a while to see does it fit, does your life work with it on, does it hang together, or snag and unravel. Are you forever finding new holes, endlessly darning and patching? And finally the existential questions—not just what the story is made of, how it wears over time, but its presentiments and surmises, its standing and understanding, its footwork. As a seaman what snags and holds you, rescues and drowns you? Do you even bother wearing sweaters, with polar fleece and plain sweatshirts and long underwear to be had, and over it all a good slicker?
Layering the practical and fanciful, clipping on imagined lifesavers, mentally fingering distant places and people and things to rest the crazed and rumpled gaze, Gibson tersely and swiftly cobbles a stubbornly practical story of what it is to be a crabber on the Bering Sea. No one would bother making any of this up. With no one to count on but each other, driven to excesses of hatred and affection, contempt and indifference, managing competence in a maelstrom of exhaustion and fear, no wonder a bunch of bilge rats shaken in a putrid tin bucket bite each others’ tails.
Embedded in the hardening mud of one’s own life, fiction can seem the only way to tell the truth. But it’s not, though unlike other ways such as preachments and editorials, the pretense of fiction is play. A form of entertainment. So the reader / listener can walk away if he’s not well and truly hooked. As I was. Recalling the immortal line of Mae West, “Better keep your hats on, boys. You’re liable to wake up miles from here.” Michael Gibson’s story has legs—and it travels.
In some of Gibson’s most lucid moments I found myself revisiting his kindred spirit, Herman Melville, whose narratives of tragicomic intensity in Redburn, White Jacket, Moby Dick, and even Billy Budd, capture sea life viewed from the bottom of the pecking order, by the least of those aboard, the misguided and beleagured greenhorn, the scapegoat. Melville as fellow novice would have understood and approved Gibson’s depiction of such characters caught in a brutalized existence, with no escape but to catch on quick enough to save their lives.
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