A lone man rows a skiff out into a fog wrapped harbor. Rowing to his boat, a boat he has fished from for many years, a boat that has served him and his sons well. He is then in the water, at night, drifting out with the tide.
Jon Keller’s debut novel, Of Sea and Cloud, opens in dramatic fashion, the same way a rogue wave appears from nowhere, catching all those on the water by surprise. Nicholas Graves, an old “salt of the sea” lobsterman, drifts off in cold waters, his boots filling and dragging him under. After an argument with Osmond Randolf, a former business partner and town minister, Nicholas goes overboard and drifts off while Osmond returns to the harbor. Was Nicholas pushed, or did he fall on his own? The scene is expertly crafted, and one can feel the cold bottom of the ocean clawing at Nicholas, as the wetness sinks into his bones, taking with it the warmth of a hard life. He slowly drifts off remembering earlier times on these waters when his two sons, Bill and Jonah, were much younger, when he was trying to teach them more about life than fishing.
Bill, the oldest son, is also a business partner with his father. Together they own and run the lobster pound inside the harbor. Here they tend and maintain their livelihood, waiting for prices to return to profitable levels. This is the same place that is the subject of arguments between men and between cultures, the Downeast way and the big business approach to an industry that is a way of life for many along the coast of Maine.
Jonah, the rookie in the family when it comes to fishing, is more focused on his girlfriend Charlotte, and also on the advice of her father, Virgil Alley. A fisherman and conspiracy theorist, it is Virgil who keeps the story moving forward with his brandy soaked ruminations of what he believes happened that night to his friend, Nicholas. He reveals to Jonah what he believes happened that foggy night and sheds light on the deeper secrets that inhabit the business of lobstering and ultimately the town’s future. Jonah ignites the situation further by finding traps set by Osmond beside those of his father, and decides to cut them, a rash decision that will spark the already smoldering situation.
Like most rogue waves, after the initial shock wears off, the wave flattens out and continues its slow arduous journey. Of Sea and Cloud commences much the same but maintains a sustained sense of anxiety and suspense throughout the book. The characters, too, are like waves, rolling in and out, having their moments then moving on, sometimes leaving the reader wanting just a little more. The beauty of this book is in the language. For those of us not of the water, Maine fishermen have their own unique way of interacting with one another, sometimes interesting and humorous, many times rough and acerbic to the outsider. In an earlier interview, Keller said, “I felt that I was touching on something nearing sacred, and to write about the locals would be a form of trespass. Fiction writers have a serious responsibility, especially when writing about something that others view as sacred — and on the downeast coast of Maine, the entire culture is wrapped around the lobster industry.”
Keller is no stranger to fishing. Having convinced a local fisherman to give him the chance, he spent a number of years as a stern man. Here is where he navigated as both a Maine fisherman and as a burgeoning writer, collecting important habits, dialogue, and the very competitive and secretive business of the Maine culture of fishing for one’s livelihood. The conversations between the characters leave no doubt that Keller has been in the midst of fishing, food, and the culture of Downeast Maine for some time.
Lastly, the story is about two battles, one familial and in the present, the other, the lobster fishing business and it’s future. Specifically, it is about the recurring struggles common to a fishing community and the family just trying to make a living, and the bigger issues of the changing markets, globalization and more importantly, the changing attitudes of the younger generation toward an industry that is dependent on that same young fisherman to preserve it. The conflicting nature of the two comes crashing together.
Now living aboard his boat full time, Keller clams when he is not writing, and when not writing he is thinking about clamming and the surrounding beauty this Downeast area brings each and every day. This was a good debut novel and a nice read by a writer who has the great ability to meld with his environment, picking out the tasty morsels that make this way of life seem intriguing, but also burden it with the cold and grueling work to make most of us shy away from a life such as this, yet admire it all the same.
Cyrus Books, 2014 Softcover, $15.99