I am often on the look-out for debut novels and coming-of-age novels are a huge draw for me as well. I ended up seeing a paperback copy of Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man on display in a bookstore and was intrigued by the description.
Beautifully written but understated, Dybek’s debut is narrated by Cal, a teenager in the late ’80s in a fictional Washington State town, Loyalty Island, where most of the men go away to crab in Alaska every year. Dybek evokes a rugged, Northwest outpost where the town’s whole economy depends on its sole industry. When John Gaunt, the owner of the boating business, dies and his college-bred son, Richard, inherits, Cal learns that his father and the men of Loyalty will do anything to keep their livelihood.
When Cal’s mother, who subscribes to Film Comment and neglects her son to listen to records in the basement, leaves for California before the birth of her second child just before Cal’s father ships out to Alaska, Cal goes to live with his classmate Jaime for the season. An uneasy friendship builds between Cal and Jaime. And when Cal shares with Jaime a secret he discovers that could tear their community apart, things get even more uneasy and unpredictable.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man gets its title from Treasure Island and the stories Cal’s father spins of Captain Flint’s adventures and exploits before his life on the sea corrupts him. The metaphor is an apt one in this tale of fathers and sons, a story about loyalty and betrayal, about connection and disconnection and about the price we pay to live lives we can’t see beyond.
Nick Dybek creates a powerful and unexpectedly dark coming-of-age novel with an unreliable yet wistful young narrator. There is mystery, drama and a surprise twist I didn’t see coming at the end. I can’t wait to run into someone else who has read it so I can discuss this ending; I still feel stormy and conflicted about it, even though Cal provides enough haunted foreshadowing to provide insight and depth to what unfolds.