Life's Lessons Learned at Sea

BOOKS

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

THERE are limits to where an author can venture when he writes in the first person point of view. Just as the beam of a ship, engine size, maximum speed, and number of crew, fashion a voyage, so too is a book fitted out when a single observer is at the helm of the narrative. Often, character development, driven by introspection, predominates. The reader's horizon stretches no further than the narrator's. The narrator's struggle becomes the reader's. This is the case in the young author Paul Watkins's masterly second novel, ``Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn.''

James Pfeiffer is in his 20th summer, heading into manhood as surely as the tides that take him out on a fishing trawler off Nantucket.

Like some 1980s version of Melville's Ishmael, he sails at that juncture in his life when a sea change is called for. He is ready to go down to the sea in ships to fish for the man he would become, to find out what he will do with the rest of his life.

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College - despite his parents' ardent desire that he graduate - leaves him gasping like the fish he nets and dumps on deck. He embodies the naivet'e, loyalty, honesty, and directness of youth. Somehow he must learn new loyalties and new ambitions. But they must be ones that aren't so new as to shipwreck him, leaving him marooned both from himself and his family.

We first meet ``Pfeiff'' schlepping fish in a warehouse freezer. He doesn't have to open his mouth for us to know his life is one approaching quiet desperation. ``I had the worst job at the East Bay Plant. I sat in the freezer all day preparing orders for shipping. Even in a heavy jacket, I was always cold.'' Working in an office chills his spirit even more than the icy air of the freezer.

In retrospect, we learn of his hard lessons: Friends, even family, betray him; he saw men, his father included, forced to earn their living by lying.

His college roommate stole his camera and took his job as a photographer for a real-estate firm. Inarticulate and outraged before the patent injustice of this, Pfeiff gets in a fight with him and is suspended from college.

Working his first ``real'' job after the suspension, one he found on his own, he is told ``to wipe off the old dates marked on tubs of fish and replace them with today's date. That way, the market receiving their order thought they were getting fish fresh off the boat. Sometimes the tubs had been sitting there for weeks.... The floor manager said if I ever told anyone about changing the dates, he would beat me up and fire me and make sure I never found work on the docks again.''

The man who gave him the job, the father of his high school girlfriend, uses his fish business as a front for shipping drugs. He finds out that drug runners cast a net wide enough to involve his own father.

For Pfeiff, life at sea may be harsh, but wind and wave prove a far more fair taskmaster. To a youth sorting out right from wrong, an honest living can be made in the self-contained world of a fishing boat. His goal becomes to own his own boat.

Watkins's prose is sparse, as distinct as the muffled sound of diesel exhaust in water or salt spray in the face. His writing conveys a bone-weary knowledge about netting, hauling, and filleting fish until the hold is full and oblivion is 10 minutes to the next watch.

Especially effective is the author's staccato syntax when used in contrast to the immature observations of his young narrator. The rhythm shrinks the ocean's immense horizon to that of Pfeiff's pysche. Vulnerable from inexperience, the boy becomes a subject more vast, moody, and changeable than the sea itself.

One of the more endearing traits of Pfeiff is a quiet bravado found in many young men when first working with older men. In this, ``Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn'' follows in the tradition of John Steinbeck, one which high school English teachers should find appealing to male students who don't ``like'' to read. Learning how to fillet fish on a rolling deck is an example: ``Kelley and Howard rammed their fingers into the fish's eyes and used the sockets as holders. With my rubber gloved hand, I prodded a few times at the green eye of a monk but couldn't bring myself to do what the others were doing. I ended up kicking my fish over to the pile.''

In addition, Pfeiff is not the stereotypical over-sexed youth found in so much contemporary fiction and movies.

Though necessarily circumscribed, Watkins carefully develops and humanely amplifies his first-person narrator. He etches a character in time and place as immediate and clear as driving rain from a summer storm pelting across a bay. The work is that of a young writer who is a force to be reckoned with.

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