“When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man” by Nick Dybek (2012) – 304 pages
There is a tradition in American fiction of writing novels which are about the coming of age of a young teenager growing up in a small town who discovers that things in his town aren’t always as they seem. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were early fictional small town boys, and such writers as William Stafford, Norman Maclean, and Larry Watson have carried on this tradition writing novels with young small town protagonists. “When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man” by Nick Dybek is a strong new novel in that same tradition
A child believes wholeheartedly in his own family, because his is the only family he knows. To the child, his own family is the definition of ‘normal’ and somehow his family is exempt from the rules of nature that apply to all the rest of the families in the town. Part of growing up is to find out that no one is exempt, even those who are nearest and dearest.. One could argue that a child living in a small United States town has lives a protected and privileged young life, and thus learning this obvious truth is more devastating for him. A good analogy is that of a young man awakening from the comfortable sleep of childhood into a hard cold troubling reality where good and evil are not so sharply delineated.
Most of the coming-of-age novels I’ve mentioned above take place in rural small towns scattered throughout the United States. “When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man” is distinctive in that it takes place in a fishing community, Loyalty Island, on a peninsula in western Washington state near the ocean. The fishermen who live there do not make a living by fishing near home but instead head to the Bering Sea near Alaska to capture salmon and are gone months at a time. The father of our young teenage boy Cal is the captain of one of the boats that head to Alaska each year. The title of the novel is based on a character from the novel ‘Treasure Island’.
Two significant events affecting Cal and his family occur at the start of the novel. The owner of his father’s fishing company dies, and Cal’s mother leaves the household to live with her sister in southern California.
One of the many pleasures of reading “When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man” is the plain simple style of the writing. This is the classical style of these coming-of-age novels, because the novelist must always be aware that the story is being told through the eyes and ears of a teenage boy, and thus a more sophisticated style would not be appropriate. Nick Dybek is quite adept in this style, conveying quite complicated ideas with plain words.
“More important two months later, when she learned she was pregnant, she’d chosen to tell him. So the problem wasn’t that she hadn’t chosen; the problem was that she’d had no idea what she was choosing. The problem was that choice was a cruel illusion.”
Nick Dybek is the son of a famous short story writer, Stuart Dybek. Collections of short stories are severely neglected in the United States; I’m probably one of the few thousand who read one of his excellent story collections, “Coast of Chicago”. His son Nick looks to be well on his way to a more lucrative career as a novelist.