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.

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RYAN W. BRADLEY has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, managed an independent children's bookstore, and now designs book covers. He is the author of three chapbooks, a story collection, Prize Winners (Artistically Declined Press, 2011), and his debut novel, Code for Failure is due from Black Coffee Press in 2012. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

2 responses to “A Review of The Whale Chaser by 
Tony Ardizzone”

  1. John Domini says:

    Ryan Bradley, you’re a good man — but I’ve got to say, this review does a disservice to a fine imagination. Ardizzone, here, has pulled off a wonderful piece of work.

    Let me make a full disclosure: a blurb of mine appears on the back of THE WHALE CHASER, & I wrote a fuller appreciation as a “holiday gift recommendation,” over on the website for the Emerging Writers Network. Okay. Granted. Still, I can’t let this review go without complaint. What’s castigated as mere “exposition” in the Chicago chapters, for instance, actually comes to readers fully, richly dramatized.

    The summary above jams hundreds of pages of careful development into a pliers & crimps, crimps, crimps. One glaring example of this misrepresentation would be the way the review makes no mention of Vince Sansone’s violent abuse at the hands of his father — one of the primary motivators for his running away. The abuse scene is the first show-stopper in the novel, & rendered w/ both ferocity & indirection, marvelously. So too, much later in the narrative, when Vince is able at last to give voice to his anger & resentment, it’s by no means mere “sentimental regurgitation.” Rather, it’s a significant moment of personal discovery & understanding: one of the 12 steps, no less.

    In other words, THE WHALE CHASER seeks to embody an entire cycle of life — not just the early pain & suffocation, but also the labor of later wholeness. Vince, in a novel like his, can’t stop, like an alcoholic, at “doing a geographic.” He must also achieve control of the demons that drove him away, control enough to name them, introduce them to others, incorporate them into who he is as an adult. With that wholeness in mind, the druggy ’60s talk (“Like, oh my God, wow”) is entirely apropos, as well as ear-perfect. It says so little, it avoids real grappling w/ emotion, & that’s precisely the *point.*

    Okay. Enough. My response I hope has convinced another few readers to try the novel, & convinced you, Ryan, to think again about its accomplishment. While I’m at it, too, let me add my fist-to-heart compliments on AQUARIUM.

    • John, I’m glad you commented here. I think any review deserves it’s flipside. After all, they are nothing but subjective. What you often express as valid points for your opinion could also be used conversely, when you say “What’s castigated as mere “exposition” in the Chicago chapters, for instance, actually comes to readers fully, richly dramatized.” Alternately, as a reader myself this is clearly not how I felt, instead feeling that the exposition robbed me of a better experience I felt there could have been without it. And, similarly the feelings about the 60’s dialogue, where I understand your point, but feel like it could have been handled in a less cheesy way, with even slight alterations. I also agree, that this book has many moments of promise, and I rooted for it throughout, but I felt the promise wasn’t delivered on due to the things I point out in the review. Of course, the things that bothered me about the book bothered me, subjectively, and in reviewing all I can do is express as much. Just as that which you enjoyed.

      And thank you, re: Aquarium! I look forward to more book discourses with you.

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