The title of Nick Dybek’s debut novel, “When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man,” hints at transitions to come, and the phrase “was still” suggests that the changes will not be good.
Flint, if you’ve forgotten your children’s classics, was the captain of the Walrus pirate ship, the man who buried the gold around which revolves the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” In Dybek’s novel, protagonist Cal Bollings’ father began reading aloud from that book before bedtime the summer the boy was 8 years old. The favorite story quickly became too familiar, so a father-son tradition emerged in which the father sent the boy off to sleep with conjured tales about Flint and his life before he turned bad, buried his treasure and killed his crew.
So we’re primed for what’s to come, even if Dybek’s novel has nothing to do with treasure in the traditional seafaring sense. This is a book about transitions, and revelations, and the thin line between acting out of fear, and out of out of a sense of morality. Or, in fact, not acting at all.
The Bollings live in the small village of Loyalty Island (which, in fact, is not an island) on Washington’s Olympia Peninsula, though the father’s presence is seasonal: He spends most of the year, as do the rest of the village fishermen, working on a deep-sea crabbing fleet off the coast of Alaska.
The main plot centers on a threat to a community’s way of life when John Gaunt, the owner of the local fleet — and, we infer, the lover of Cal’s mother — dies. His troubled and shiftless son, Richard, decides to sell the fleet off to Japanese investors. Faced with a crisis that threatens to turn Loyalty Island into a ghost town, Henry Bollings and some of the other fishermen act, creating a different kind of crisis. And Cal and his best friend, Jamie North, both 14 years old that summer, stumble into the middle of it.
The manner in which the plot unfolds falls a bit flat. While the main characters are fully fleshed, a few of the side characters veer close to caricature, and some behave in ways that seem unlikely as they hurtle toward a conclusion that, in the end, feels anticlimactic. Yet these aren’t fatal issues in what otherwise is a finely crafted debut.
Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Dybek (son of award-winning author Stuart Dybek) is a clean and stripped-down stylist, striking a delicate balance between ambiguity and life-changing clarity. The prose is taut, as in this passage about Memorial Day. Traditionally a night for a rollicking, fleet-wide dinner in Gaunt’s spacious home, the first post-death dinner is at Bollings’ house amid the uncertainty over what will happen to the fleet, to their jobs, and to their way of life.
“I served deviled eggs on cafeteria trays as headlights flashed past the windows and branches flinched in the wind. Husbands and wives padded through our living room in their socks, whispering greetings, ashing into their hands. They shuffled from foot to foot, room to room, trailing plumes of smoke. They slid through doorways, tapping shoulders, mumbling apologies. There had never been a Memorial Day dinner, let alone a fishing season, without the Gaunts. The air in the living room had grown thick with the familiar smells of smoke and sweat, it was still the wrong living room.”
Dybek’s strengths as a writer are considerable. The sense of place is shaped subtly, with just enough detail to let the reader fill out the vision.
The sharpest evidence of Dybek’s skills is that he has taken a story line that could easily have veered into film cliché, a mix of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and the basic secret-in-the-basement plot, and turned it into a taut novel juggling the sometimes conflicting impulses to do the moral thing, and to protect those we love.
At the same time, Dybek steps beyond what could have been a tired coming-of-age story to write about memory, and about the repercussions of making a choice, whether it’s right or wrong. In fact, making the right choice can often lose us more than making the wrong choice.
The choices Cal and his father make reveal facets of themselves they had not before contemplated. In the austere world of controlled emotions in which they live, the revelations are salted away like a catch at sea.
And we’re left to wonder whether Flint ever was, indeed, a good man.
Irvine-based writer Scott Martelle is the author of “Detroit: A Biography.”