When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek (New York: Riverhead, 2012.  320 pp)

A first time author, Nick Dybek is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he was the recipient of a Hopwood Award for Short Fiction, and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he won a Maytag Fellowship and a Michener-Copernicus Award. He has taught writing at Western Washington University and Augustana College.

Dime A Dozen

Before we get to the meat of the review, let me first just say this: young authors are a dime a dozen, but Nick Dybek finds a way to make that so-called “dime” count. When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is a stunning and suspenseful novel that takes place in the Pacific Northwest.

Fifteen year old Cal is the son of Henry and Donna and lives on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Rain pummels the landscape, and is perhaps one of the only semi-constants in Cal’s life. Henry is a crabber who sails every fall up from the Olympic Peninsula up to the Bering Sea to spend the entirety of winter catching crab.

Much like the popular television series, Deadliest Catchthe ship that bears Cal’s father is the epitome of danger and uncertainty. And, with great danger comes great adventure. The complexities of life at sea can change a man, and the father that returns home after a voyage at sea is a constant symbol of adventure and wonder to the young boy. During the summers, Cal’s dad tells tall stories, generally centering around Captain Flint of Treasure Island . While Cal loves the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, he always wants to know more about the dreaded pirate. His father obliges.

“I waited under the covers as my father settled down in the blue beanbag on the floor and switched off the bedside lamp. I could smell the nightly cup of coffee on his breath. ‘Years ago,’ he began, ‘when Flint was still a good man…'” (6).

Treasure Island vs. Life

The tales of Treasure Island are fanciful to be certain. But, Cal finds Henry’s own life stories to be just as intriguing.

“It wasn’t until talk turned to where to send the boats that I could concentrate. The Inside Passage. Cape Decision. Veta Bay. Alaska. These places sounded no less fantastic, and no more real, than Skeleton Island, Atlantis, or the City of Apes. At the sound of the names, I could feel my brain stretch. I could imagine white seas and silences. Trickles of light and bolts of cold wind. Boats plowing through waves under flocks of birds, black as keyholes in the sky” (20).

Soon, Cal learns that perhaps all of life isn’t what it seems. Perhaps, all people are formerly good, all stories are tall, and the truth is always hard to find. Why? John Gaunt, the owner of the fishing village, has died. Gaunt’s son, Richard, is found missing at sea, and the other captains of the fleet are suspect, including Henry’s own father. Cal, understandably confused, finds that the world is populated by good men doing “unspeakable harm to other people” to their own gain, much like Captain Flint.

When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is no Deadliest Catch. It’s better. Dybek’s first novel has morality, multi-dimensional characters, and complex family dynamics. I’m excited to see what this author has to offer in the future.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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