Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rory Nugent's "Down at the Docks"

Rory Nugent is an explorer and a writer. His books include The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck and Drums Along the Congo.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Down at the Docks, and reported the following:
While a true master, his prose a guide for all scribblers, Ford Madox Ford was dead-ass wrong commending page 99 as all a browser needs to ascertain the whole. Sure, any one page can offer up a fair sampling of tone and style and tempo; after all, each paragraph should be integral to the whole, and if not, well, the book is sure to leak like a poorly caulked scow. What Ford misses--indeed, what any reader flipping pages at random misses--is the force of the narrative. Character development is important. Plot is important. And craftsmanship is best exhibited over the course of a book, page one to the END. God help us--reader and writer alike--if the story stinks; we all feel duped and for different reasons. On the other hand, we all want to be taken on a journey offering up a tremendous pay-off for little cash up front. However, the only way to assay worth takes a lot more reading than a single page.

That said and astern, I gladly invite readers to take the Page 99 test when picking up my new book, Down at the Docks. The language is indicative of the whole, as is pacing and structure. And luckily, perhaps, this single page exemplifies what I tried to do throughout the book, layering it with history and using a single place (in this case, the fishing port of New Bedford, Massachusetts) as a mirror on the 300 year American passage from bottom of the heap to top of the pile.

Nowhere in America, wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick, will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. But ever since the blossoming of the electronic age and out-sourcing, New Bedford has withered, a brick and mortar city filled with mill buildings which keep the fire department in work but few others. As always, fishing remains a vital industry in town. In fact, it's America's largest fishing port; however, its fleet is under seige by government rules and regulations and much from the past is going missing, just like cod.

Page 99 of Down at the Docks involves my man, Mako, a captain who feels he has been screwed by a bunch of sheriff deputies, lab coats and greenies who don't know jack about the sea. In his early days, he was a harpooner aboard a swordfish stick boat. A fish swims near him on his boat and reflexively, he reaches for Mister Sticker, his harpoon........

While javelins are made for throwing, harpoons are meant for thrusting. The user's power hand cusps the end of the wooden shaft, while the other hand guides the iron tip to the target, leaving arms and shoulders to do the work. As a weapon, it's effective only in close combat, which partly explains why so many New Bedford whalemen died on the job.It was normal for the harpooner to urge the oarsmen to climb up the back of the beast. He knew any distance beyond a few yards was useless to his cause; he needed to plunge the stick a foot or more into blubber. What chances the whale had to escape and/or turn its predators into prey disappeared after the introduction of bow-mounted harpoon guns in the late 1860s.

Closer, please, Mr. Fish, Mako whispers, and thumps the transom several times with Mister Sticker. In his days as a harpooner aboard a sword boat, he was known as one of the few white guys in the top tier of a trade dominated by men of color: red, black, brown and yellow. Traditionally, like Tashtego and Queequeg, the best in the business hailed from islands: Martha's Vineyard, Cabo Verde, the Azores and Samoa.

That's it, fishy, closer, Mako says, and prepares to launch. Hands at the grip points, the shaft goes tight to his right cheek and he puts his left foot forward, his legs bent at the knee. With the machine cocked, the veins in his arms start stretching their fabric and his eyes grow large, bulging in their sockets and showing lots of white. The shiner nears, and when the target darts leftward, Mako twists at the waist, following it. When, for a moment, the fish dives, he straightens. The fish accelerates, but he's already up to speed.

Mister Sticker barely raises a splash as it cuts through the water......
Learn more about the book and author at Rory Nugent's website.

--Marshal Zeringue