The idea of the North as an escape is one that has permeated literature. Whether it’s the idiocy of youth reflected in Into the Wild or career happenstance, as in The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, places like Alaska and Canada have always held a mystique. There is a certain hope for misfits and those looking for an exit from a tired lifestyle.
Having worked in the Arctic Circle, where the workforce includes a large number of ex-convicts, I have seen how the nature of the North’s inherent seclusion attracts those looking to start over. Or to simply toil in anonymity.
In Tony Ardizzone’s The Whale Chaser, protagonist Vince Sansone escapes his Chicago upbringing for the small British Columbian fishing town, Tofino. Vince is the oldest child, and only son, in a large Italian-American family, who finds solace in a romantic relationship with Marie, the butcher’s daughter. With the promise of escaping his family’s fishing background for Marie’s father’s business, Vince finds himself consumed with thoughts of another woman, Lucy Sheehan who has a sketchy sexual reputation. When Vince leaves Chicago, and ends up tied once again to the fishing trade, he continues to find escapes by harboring traveling hippies and joining forces with a local marijuana dealer, Mr. Zig Zag.
Throughout the novel, chapters jump back and forth on Vince’s timeline, echoing his attempted escapes from the past, but also demonstrating his inability to do so. Like Callanan’s aforementioned novel, The Whale Chaser contains elements of World War II historical fiction, and Vince is haunted by his family’s immigrant background. As in Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan, there is a nostalgic re-invention of Chicago, in the guise of childhood stories of Vince’s love life and his father’s violent temper. And as in the work of Kerouac, there is a romanticizing of hippie communities, the bonding of so-called counter-culture wanderers.
While the Chicago elements hold promise, and do indeed feel like close cousins to those of Dybek’s book, Ardizzone’s are plagued by a heavily expositional approach that keeps the reader from that beautiful feeling of being sucked into the story. And when action is finally delivered, Ardizzone is quick to make sure the reader catches it by reiterating what has happened through his narrator’s sentimental regurgitation.
In the Tofino chapters, there are again these hints of promise. Sure, the shades of Kerouac are heavy (though not unacknowledged), but rather than delivering these stories in a way that ties in with the narrative style of the Chicago chapters, Ardizzone instead falls pray to stale “60’s” dialogue. One hippy wayfarer even says, “Like, oh my God, wow.” Which, with its Shaggy connection makes it easy to see the rest of the verbiage like “hip” and “square” as a script for Scooby Doo.
While Vince finds his calling as a whale guide, the reader is effectively robbed of this as an apex, because the rest of the novel has toiled in reflection upon reflection, deeper than an Escher drawing. Often one memory is interrupted by another, causing the reader to wonder whether they are, in fact, part of the story Vince is trying to get to from the beginning. A streamlined version of his narrative might have done more justice to his own tale of redemption–but with so much aimless, rattletrap personal and familial history, reading it is not unlike listening to one’s senile grandparent relate a story from their rocking chair in the nursing home.
It is a novel filled with stories. There is a story of Vince’s escape to British Columbia, his escape from demons imposed on him by his father, his lineage, and his love life. But this book is not the sum of its parts, or its moments of promise. If the story that Vince is setting out to tell at the book’s onset is the fish, it’s been wrapped in too many Sunday papers for the walk home, and just as it will take as much time to unwrap such a fish as it would to cook it, Vince’s true story is similarly buried. Which leaves The Whale Chaser waiting for its own redemption.