After reading the manuscript of The Pearl, Steinbeck’s editor remarked, “In this parable you say there are only black and white things and no in-between, but what rich blacks and what dazzling whites.” The same could be said, with serious reservations, about veteran science journalist and poet John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker.
Though the novel is vaguely set in 1800s Northern Europe, it exists more in the world of myth than at any point in history.
Here, men work with their hands, drink too much, and get into fights. Women are long-suffering and use sex to win security from those men. The residents of Small Island are backward, those of Big Island are slightly more sophisticated, and the Mainland is undergoing an ambitious program of modernization.
Being from Small Island, the titular boatmaker is a simple man. He shapes wood into elegant furniture but does not feel strongly one way or the other about his craft. His drinking sprees can last for months. Apart from an occasional lover, he is alone.
After waking from a fever dream, the boatmaker builds a boat and sails to Big Island, then to the Mainland, where he finds work, makes friends, and tries not to drink too much. (Benditt’s descriptions of the boatmaker’s alcoholism are particularly compelling: “As always, the drink seems to know him by name.”) He doesn’t quite understand the significance of money or friendship, as he had little of either on Small Island.
After a brutal beating at the hands of his “friends,” the boatmaker is recruited into a religious order, the New Land, where he settles into a routine of prayer and farmwork despite his lack of faith. He escapes after New Land’s charismatic leader tries to recruit him into a violent and self-sacrificial movement. Then, as anti-Semitism starts rumbling through the Mainland, the boatmaker becomes apprentice to a family of Jewish furniture-makers and begins an affair with the family’s daughter.
At its best, Benditt’s storytelling is as clean and functional as the boatmaker’s furniture: “Before leaving, he swept the shed, leaving the door open for the next man who wants to use it. He took the important tools with him, in case he needs to find work on Big Island. Any honest man of Small Island is welcome to the rest.”
In its earnestness, however, The Boatmaker often steers into the territory of a harlequin romance or Dungeons and Dragons novelization. One of the boatmaker’s lovers “has worked so hard to keep the layer of ice around her heart intact.” When they make love for three days straight, “[n]either of them feels at home, yet neither has any doubt that they belong in this room together.” Later, the boatmaker realizes that the New Land and another religious order “are closely joined in a dangerous conspiracy that reaches all the way to the palace itself.”
In other words, it’s corny. The novel says nothing constructive about faith and love and self-discovery even white constantly alluding to those themes. It’s also populated entirely by archetypes—the rough working man, the genteel lover, the privileged but persecuted Jewish merchant—with little humanity to fill them out.
Even the anti-Semitism, with its blatant and inevitable echoes of Nazism, fails to lift The Boatmaker above the level of a long and dull fairy tale. These poor Jews seem as if they were thrown in to make this wispy novel more real—they could have easily been replaced with elves or forest sprites or Robin Hood’s Merry Men without changing the tenor of the tale.
A bit of corniness, used as a foundation, would have been both forgivable and necessary. Great literature has been written when authors give color to sappy themes. The Pearl, as noted above, is not a particularly subtle novel. But Steinbeck portrayed Kino, his wife and son, and their impoverished town with a level of detail Benditt never achieves in The Boatmaker. (This isn’t to say that Steinbeck always hit the mark. His portrayal of the mestizos in Tortilla Flat shamelessly exploits the stereotype of the drunk, carefree brown man.)
Ultimately, The Boatmaker fails because it never develops beyond its fairy-tale corniness. In this colorless novel, the blacks are not rich, nor the whites dazzling.
–Available in February from Tin House Books. 464 pages. $15.95
Thanks to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, for confirming the quote that begins this review. You can learn more at www.steinbeck.org.