Herring’s maritime fiction a deftly profound debut
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Herring, the protagonist of Nicholas Herring’s debut novel Some Hellish, is a P.E.I. lobster fisher with many familiar problems and some unfamiliar ones, such as his spiteful and verbally exuberant wit. He drinks far too much and consumes any drugs available, he is accident prone and in poor health, he ignores his wife and daughters.
One day he impulsively cuts a hole in the living room floor and installs a hoist, which leads to the departure of his wife and children. His motivation: he wanted more convenient access to a heating stove in the basement.
In his ensuing loneliness, Herring spends a lot of time with his good friend Gerry, getting wasted both on and off his fishing boat, while driving and while stationary.
This sounds like it could be a comic scenario, and the novel is indeed extremely funny. But what distinguishes Some Hellish is its style. No simple one-to-one correspondence exists here between the real and the language that describes it. Instead it is as if an early morning fog lifts to reveal something profound about that same reality, something that cannot be said directly, in some plainspoken burst.
Here, for example, is an early description of Herring: “There was a rage in him, a red, molten affair, and sometimes when it rippled, when it snapped as if it were a tacked sail, he didn’t know what to do with himself. Then a blackness would come, a kind of slag, and it would overwhelm him. He would see that he was tired of himself and of having to be himself, and he would desire only the destruction of everything before and around him.”
Much of this novel’s style comes from its rich deployment of metaphor, often in highly imaginative descriptive layers: “Red John and Gerry were drinking coffee by the window, watching vehicles glister by, their transport like a kind of sales pitch, the proud revolution of some vastly intricate wedding ring, evoking in both of them the eerie sense that the movements before their eyes were on a loop, were controlled by some grander trickery.”
Sometimes the style turns lyrical and lush in describing the natural world: “Overhead, the clouds ambled through the stars, discarnate boats upon the waters of a dream.” The lushness is tempered with grit, and religious allusion enters the language too: “The skies were dirty, and the rains upon the horizon were all wrath and poverty, their shadowed sweep like the sixth seal of Revelation.”
Humour constantly tempers the grimness of the fishery and its workers, and the thick style, as when we are introduced to “a sea of tea-stained teeth, indubitable and guileless, as only the truly old can pretend to be.” A minor character’s voice has a “trampled, smoggy quality,” and “[h]e looked and sounded like an old Victorian farmhouse being razed to the ground.”
Broader humour punctures the lyricism too: “He pictured meeting the Buddha, who was also Jesus, and everybody else, really, and he looked like the fellow from Nickelback and all he wanted to do was sell Gerry some drugs.”
The proliferation of 10-dollar words will occasionally send readers to the dictionary for gems such as elusion, snood and mononymous. Many Canadian novelists simply lack the depth of reading that you need to effectively deploy this kind of vocabulary. Many others are embarrassed to wield such tools, fearing an esthetic that might attract attention to itself.
The burst of magic realism in the novel’s last third comes off as completely plausible because we are drenched in the humanity and realism of the characters, and because the prose has freed us from conventional expectations.
Comparisons to the great New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards may be inevitable, because of the working-class characters and the eastern geography, but really Nicholas Herring is a new and utterly distinct talent. (Some Hellish is a finalist for the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Prize for fiction.)
His book’s style and sweep, its metaphorical richness and rhetorical beauty, come from some splendid place that must only exist in his mind, a place where Shakespeare becomes the new bass player for Metallica and speaks with a curious Atlantic-Canadian accent, telling loud, sacrilegious, frequently offensive jokes, none of which can be reproduced here.
Nicholas Herring is a major writer, and Some Hellish is a brilliant and head-spinning debut.
Maurice Mierau is a Winnipeg writer who still loves Joseph Conrad.