Avi Heyer, the protagonist of Alan Michael Parker’s second novel, Whale Man, is no Captain Ahab, but he’s still obsessed with a whale. It’s just that Avi’s whale is one that he longs to build on his mother’s front lawn out of plywood, two-by-fours, and canvas. And it isn’t overweening pride that causes him to chase his whale—it’s a dream. That and money. And a girl named Lima Bean.
Parker, who has also published five collections of poetry, chronicles Avi’s obsession and his quest to discover the truth about his mother with non-stop humor and wildly imaginative language.
“She sat down on the bench across from Avi, leaned toward him, and rested her chin on her fist art-historically.” (Like Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Get it?)
Avi’s mother has died, and he’s staying in her house in the small-ish town of Elsbeth, North Carolina, in order to settle the estate. It’s not his childhood home, though, because his mother left the family when Avi was a kid, and he’s had limited contact with her since. So he has no particular emotional attachment to the house itself or its contents, except for the guilt he feels over his estrangement from his mother, for which he blames himself. But, sleeping in the house, he has a dream that he can’t shake: a workman, tools, the inside of rib-ceilinged cavern, and his mother.
Dreams in fiction are a tool of overt manipulation, often a clumsy attempt by writers to introduce or explain symbolism that the text itself does not support. For instance, a dream might provide a clueless character with a key to unlock a mystery, and, when that happens, some readers will lose all faith in the author and the story he’s telling. And yet, people really do have dreams, and sometimes those dreams do in fact have significance, or at least the dreamers believe they have significance, which often amounts to the same thing. Here, Avi’s dream in the opening pages of the novel isn’t a magic key. It doesn’t offer any answers or explain any secrets. It’s more of a dumb show that anticipates the novel’s looping action and raises questions for Avi to grapple with. It’s both an inspiration for Avi—it’s why he builds the whale in the first place—and a preview for the reader. Even Avi puzzles over the nature of dreams:
“One thing he didn’t know: what was a dream? Was a dream a memory or a prediction, renewal or pre-newal?”
A little of each, as it turns out.
Although Avi’s preoccupation with his life-size cetacean lawn ornament marks him as eccentric, he’s hardly the oddest character in this assemblage of very odd characters. Almost from the beginning of the book, when Avi answers his mother’s cell phone, he’s surrounded by mysterious women with names like The Camel, Lima Bean, and Ramona Pill, not to mention the twins (variously named, but most memorable as Snow White and Rose Red), a pair of bobble-headed henchwomen who relish the idea of causing Avi grievous bodily harm. All of them are after “the list”—presumably valuable secret information left among his mother’s papers. And then there’s Mimou, Avi’s French girlfriend from Washington, DC, where he’s been working as a chef; Hannah Cara Papadopolus (always referred to by all three names), the fawning news anchor sent to cover the lawn-whale phenomenon; the ever-present Pony Tail Guy; and Rick, the chain-smoking contractor Avi hires to help build the whale. Rick, whose first name Avi appropriates for much of the novel, is maybe the most normal one in the bunch—he seems to know what he’s doing, building-wise, and is full of good advice on multiple levels. My favorite character, though, is Avi’s dog, Dolly, whose communication skills are better than all the rest of the characters combined:
“‘Woof! Woof!’ said Dolly, which in Doggish meant Holy Shit!”
Oddball characters aside, the book’s convoluted plot follows Avi’s attempts to unravel the mystery of “the list” that The Camel and the others are after as well as the secret of the large sum of money he stands to inherit from his mother. Her lawyer is no help, and neither are the neighbors (another odd character, this one named Sascha, also known as Mario), but eventually Avi begins to move closer to the truth with the help of Lima Bean, of whom Avi has grown quite fond.
But what’s it all about? Besides being a fun romp with extremely memorable characters, and simple illustrations that might put the reader in mind of The Little Prince (although the similarity ends there), the book is tackling bigger themes of forgiveness and redemption. Avi feels responsible for the split with his mother, and it’s clear that she felt the same, but her legacy—it’s more than just money, as he learns—helps him get past that. He’s also able to learn trust and, ultimately, find love, not an inconsiderable feat.
What matters, though, is that Whale Man is a terrific, entertaining read that weaves Parker’s poetic concision and offbeat sense of humor into an engaging tale.
NOTE TO READER: Clifford Garstang and Alan Michael Parker are friends.