John Benditt, 2015
Wandering into my local bookstore, Green Apple, is always a treat. That shop has blessed me with countless literary treasures that I likely wound never have found anywhere else. Recently I was glancing at The Boatmaker‘s intriguing cover when the Green Apple clerk informed me that the author for the book in my hands was giving a reading at that very moment at the back of the store. Although John Benditt’s reading had just ended, such casual serendipitous moments are enticing invitations to explore a new author’s world – and with Benditt’s first book, The Boatmaker, what a world to stumble upon!
The Boatmaker is a rich, yet simple story of self discovery and is best described as a fable written for adults. My reading found similarities to the iconic journey of Siddhartha stripped of the idealized and spiritually motivated vision of Herman Hesse’s book. I draw the parallel with Siddhartha because the The Boatmaker is a journeyman tale wherein the protagonist, an unnamed young man is motivated by a fever-induced dream to build a boat and sail away from his home on Small Island to reach Big Island, and later the Mainland. Other than his motivation to build a boat and set sail, the Boatmaker doesn’t know what to do with himself and like the protagonist Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in worldly distractions of drink, money, and sex as he attempts to make sense of his place in the workings of the world as he attempts to make sense of the world. However, unlike Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds a simpler answer to his worldly pursuits than Siddhartha’s transcendent revelations: the Boatmaker ultimately discovers the roots of his identity and his skill with carpentry and wood lie within his familial roots.
“He see that in each of his experiences he has been different: sometimes meek, sometimes hard, usually silent, occasionally talking too much, often gullible, sometimes suspicious, sometimes drunk for long periods, at other times achingly sober. All these versions of himself have played their part in bringing him here; he is grateful to each of them.” (230)
The charm of this book is the simplicity of its language. I mentioned above that this book is best described as a fable for adults and that fable-like feeling arises from the novel’s structure and style. Few of the characters have names, the country wherein the plot takes place is also unnamed and is only referred to as “The Mainland,” permitting the reader to accept and find a larger application to the universal nature of the story’s themes. This is a story that could have taken place in an alternate history of any possible European country. Within The Mainland there is religious and political conflict as the nation struggles to economically and culturally redefine itself amidst the scramble toward modernity, and yet the lives of the nation’s people continue on, each with their personal economic and emotional struggles and celebrations. There is a sweetness to the imperfect simplicity of the Boatmaker, a man with vague ambitions who easily becomes lost to drink or the ambitions of his neighbors, friends, and lovers. And yet, this is a raw and gritty story with several surprising twists as well as explicit descriptions of both sex and violence, but what really makes this story a powerful read is the directness of its narrative voice, as highlighted in the passage below:
“When she fell in love with the man upstairs in her bed, she didn’t intend to change her world. But her world has changed. When she lived with Valter, the outer world was orderly. The people of Small Island were welcoming and respectful; she was the wife of a Big man. But inside her everything was like a damned river. Now the river has broken the damn and overflowed, foaming and surging downstream. Inside, she has been freed, but the outer world does not give her the respect it once did.” (25)
The example above is highlight of what makes this such a great read. Throughout the book the narrative voice speaks with a poetic economy of words that provide a setting to frame the action, such as the following line:
“Outside the wind dies; the oak leaves hang in ripe green clusters.” (238)
And the simplicity of that setting is followed by a gripping scene just a few lines later:
“He opens his eyes and raises the knife. Holding his nose with his left hand, he uses his strong right arm to slice off the tip. The stub of pink flesh comes away in his hand. He holds it up, showing it to the others, as blood washes slowly down his face.” (238)
The gruesome image in the passage above takes place when the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in a cult-like community, which is just one of the many scenarios and events he becomes involved in through his life’s journey. This book manages to cover a lot of ground through thematic action. With fable-like prowess, the narrative manages to explore a lot of philosophical inquiry regarding culture, ethics, religion, and relationships without being overtly philosophical. The plot drives the philosophical themes, which is a refreshing alternative for this reader. Rarely do characters overtly speak of grand ideas because the actions and struggles they endure do the speaking for them. The only instance that was overtly explicit in dialogue was the following passage regarding money:
“‘Gold has value because we believe it does.’ Rachel Lippsted says; keeping her voice steady clearly requires an effort. ‘Gold is beautiful, yes, and easily worked. It makes wonderful jewelry. But as currency it has nothing but the value we endow it with. And this has always been true: Money has the power we bestow upon it by putting our collective faith in it.'” (150)
That passage stood out to me because it aligns with my personal beliefs and understanding about the great scramble for riches and experience. Money in itself is essentially useless, it is just paper, or more often in our present day, just numbers on a computer screen, but what really bears value is memory, experience, and relationship. And that is ultimately what the theme of The Boatmaker strives to explore, the main theme within this book is that the journey of discovery reveals itself through our relationships with others and how those relationships define our identity. The book’s ending of course provides a striking, and sad revelation of this theme, but the passage that most poignantly spoke to me was the following incident that details the self-defeating realization that the Boatmaker has misplaced his only physical tie to his home, a handkerchief that was sewn by his mother that artistically depicted the harbor of his small island home:
“He can imagine how it happened…the handkerchief lying in the rain under the wheels of pushcarts, under shoes and boots, until nothing is left but a few threads, green and white. Finally, even the threads wash down to the sewer drain at the end of the alley…As he imagines this slow progression of decay, the boatmaker feels he is taking a beating ten times worse than the one White’s giant fists delivered. After it is over, he is as empty as the sealskin bag.” (186)
When I read that passage I was nearly in tears and had to put the book down for a moment. That passage spoke with such power portraying the man’s realization that he had lost his one connection to his past and in that loss, he had lost a sense of his own identity. Compelling moments such as these give the The Boatmaker an importance that shines with clarity. This fable of a book speaks from a wizened voice, aware of the complex simplicity of life in this world, and for that this book is one of the best and most enjoyable I’ve read this year.