Oct 12, 2016

Mando Takes Us Out to Sea

The North Water by Ian McGuire
Dinner and Acknowledgments

After a break in August, we returned in September ready for two things: a delicious meal and a vigorous discussion of a truly gruesome seafaring tale.  We had both and weren't disappointed by either. As to the first, Armando grilled an outstanding yellowtail tuna (caught, incidentally, by him on his most recent trip to the Sea of Cortez) and paired it with a perfectly done beef tri tip. To eat so well when discussing the plight of 19th-century sailors trapped in Arctic ice was almost criminal. Almost. But not enough to prevent some of us from reaching for seconds. Thank you, Armando, for setting an outstanding table, as usual.

We should also acknowledge Paul Liberatore, whose lifestyle pieces in the Marin IJ are consistently interesting and enjoyable. Paul was our guest for the evening and we are grateful to him for the positive reaction that followed his recent article about our book group.  Thanks, Paul.  Your profile of us provided a perspective sorely missing in the New York Times' trend piece last May.

Our Review and Discussion of The North Water

First, a disclaimer:  a courtesy copy of The North Water was sent to us by the good folks at Henry Holt & Co. Evidently, they were hoping we'd review it and help them sell a few copies.  Unfortunately, it was several months before Ian McGuire's first novel finally made it into our rotation.  During that time the book was published, got great reviews, and sold plenty of hardcover copies.  Thank goodness, because we genuinely liked the book and wouldn't want anyone to think we'd sing for the price of a lousy hardback.  (We can be bought, just not that cheaply.)

The North Water places the reader aboard the Volunteer, an 1850's whaling ship whose sailors are wretched (to a man), whose voyage is futile, and whose prey has retreated far north of their usual breeding grounds. But if any of us thought these simple themes would combine for a pleasant bit of historical fiction, perhaps with elements of Herman Melville, Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Henry Dana, we were in for a big surprise.  The first page treats the reader to the novel's prime antagonist, Henry Drax, leaving a whorehouse and openly savoring the residue of a night of fornication.  Within a few short pages he has killed a man, sodomized a boy, and shipped out on the Volunteer

All of us found McGuire's novel rich in its language (with all of its coarseness) and peopled with unforgettable characters.  As for universal themes, we kept coming back to the obvious: good vs. evil.  Although, as Roy pointed out, since virtually every character is badly flawed, the contrast is really between Drax's malevolence and the more modest shortcomings of his shipmates.  No one, including the protagonist Sumner, gets a pass from McGuire.

Rating The North Water

While Armando critiqued one of the whaling scenes as "inauthentic," the rest of us were captivated by a story so different from anything we've read to date. According to Larry, the book had the urgency and harshness of The Revenant; Doug found it "unflinchingly violent"; Tom said it was "engrossing" (high praise from the engineer!); Paul fell hard for McGuire's many "well-turned phrases"; and the history geek in Terry was fascinated by the novel's prescient account of a dying industry.  With a rating of 7.8, The North Water landed high on our growing list of books read.

Next Up: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Doug miscalculated badly when he offered us 14 titles for our consideration.  He subsequently pared the list to four in order to force a decision.  We rejected Barbarian Days when we learned we could read a magazine-length version; Underground Airlines had some confusing it with Underground Railroad; and The Throwback Special simply didn't resonate.  Which left us with Nguyen's much-praised The Sympathizer.  Given how impressed we were with another recent Pulitzer winner (The Orphan Master's Son), we have high hopes for our next selection.


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  3. Oh I got it. It posts to our Web page automatically. Now I've forgotten my original comments which I failed to post correctly. I think I said I'm in Austria skiing and didn't read Dan's book. But that it must be good with an 8.0 rating. Hope to see everybody at Glen's.

  4. I hope to post a more erudite comment than Stan airing his Luddite-ness on this public forum...

    I really enjoyed the book, though it may set a new standard for twisted, despicable, and immoral characters. Much of the book has a sense of inexorable rushing toward bad things happening, and it doesn't disappoint. It also keeps you interested in what will happen to many of this motley crew; strangely despite all their flaws and many being criminally disgusting, the author keeps us interested in what will happen as their situation devolves into a vaguely Lord of the Flies with adults kind of situation.

    An intense, interesting read.

  5. We'll soon get to see what a Lord of the Flies situation looks like when we read A High Wind in Jamaica, as that novel was supposedly William Golding's inspiration. But I doubt anything those kids do can compare to Henry Drax and his ilk.

  6. It was fascinating to watch the changes as Sumner to protagonist becomes more and more like Drax the antagonist. Eventually, after succumbing to the lows of his mortal being, he begins to come back with the help of a captive animal.

  7. Was that Stan? Or do you mean the bear?