Salty Gothic: Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man

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“Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted,” Robert Louis Stevenson once noted, “certain coasts are set apart for ship-wreck.” And so we find ourselves on working class Loyalty Island, the setting for Nick Dybek’s potent coming of age novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Cal Bollings was born and raised on this minor peninsula in Washington state, a town small in size, in mentality and imagination, where the local civic monument is a statue of a nameless drowning man, someone to stand in for the living as well as the dead.

The novel looks back at the year Cal turned 14, when John Gaunt, the man who owns the fishing company on which most of the men — and thus by extension the town’s existence — depend, suddenly died. With his father gravely ill, Gaunt’s wayward son Richard has returned, and upon the old man’s demise almost immediately threatens to sell the fleet out from under them, partly as revenge on a town which never let him fit in.

Cal’s father is one of the many local fishermen who sail off to the Bering Sea every fall, working that vanishing class of jobs which trade on rough masculinity. “I don’t want to romanticize their work because I’ve never done it,” Cal narrates. “But they romanticized it because they suffered for it… It had to be part of some larger destiny, the fight to stay awake and alive had to be turned, somehow, from drudgery to heroism.” These men are ugly as a bunch of pirates, scarred, limping, with fingers bitten off by bait feeders and crooked features, and Dybek draws them with vivid characterizations. Richard in particular is snotty, witty, lost, a poignant and pathetic figure, self-centered, self-aware but incapable of steering his own life. As much as Cal is used to idolizing his father, it is with Richard that he shares too much in common, both black sheep who may or may not possess the courage to make lives for themselves elsewhere. Cal isn’t exactly plucky. More authentically boyish, he’s morose and bored, sensitive, confused, and mean-spirited; conflicted about his father and as lonely for his mother as he is angry at her disloyalties.

Cal’s mother, a schoolteacher from Santa Cruz with a taste for foreign films and jazz, made an uneasy transition to Washington state from the start, never even making a friend there save John Gaunt. Like any good adventure hero, Cal is effectively orphaned early on in the book, when his father ships out for the season and the boy refuses to accompany his mother as she splits back to California. Marooned in a social and physical landscape imbued with violence, Cal is soon stalked by a moral danger when his father and a group of local men decide they’re willing to do anything to save the fleet. “The problem” with life, he comes to suspect, “was that choice was a cruel illusion.”

The book’s title refers to an invention of Cal’s normally taciturn father. Pressed upon years ago by his Treasure Island-besotted son, the elder Bollings concocted bedtime adventures about the murderously greedy Captain Flint. These tales focused on Flint’s early days, a time before Stevenson’s famous villain lost his ethical footing, foreshadowing the storyteller’s own slide.

Dybek’s not the only author to recently call upon Stevenson as a point of departure. Where Sara Levine went resplendently over the top in Treasure Island!!!, among other things making a farce of contemporary narcissism, Dybek has gone darker, clothing his story in a classically romantic aesthetic.

This romantic aura gives Dybek — who isn’t just alluding to Stevenson, but also riffing on Richard II, and something of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while dropping in Japanese auteurs and Greek mythology — room to wield his references portentously, to weave in heavily freighted dreams and the vaguely supernatural. Dybek conjures his island with rich physical details, with crashing and shrieking, rain thrumming, waves tumbling, prose steeped in an atmosphere that occasionally borders on Gothic: “fog sank through the trees and onto the cemetery paths,” and every once in a while goes baroque: “The sea a gray mouth, waves poking like tongues.” Dybek avoids getting mired in style, however, marshaling the narrative along with an almost flawless sense of timing and pace.

Written from the point of view of 14 years hence, it is also peppered with melancholy questions: “Who decides what we keep and what we lose?”; “Why do we want to be closest to people in their most private moments?”; “How can I be more like you if you don’t help me?” Though positioned as recent history — the year is 1986 — its hint of the 19th century seems a fitting register for a mournful novel concerned with the weight of tradition. Cal is keenly aware of the ways communities define themselves through fictions, and Dybek’s impressive debut acknowledges how hard it can be to grow up when to cling to Loyalty is to go down with the ship.