Novel continues commercial fishing saga

Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2004


  Raiders By William McCloskey Published by The Lyons Press $22.95 (hard cover)


By William McCloskey

Published by The Lyons Press

$22.95 (hard cover)

William McCloskey's 1979 novel "Highliners" caused a stir. Its lively, gritty and realistic portrait of Alaska's commercial fishing life hit the mark during a time when men took on one of the world's most dangerous jobs to seek fortunes in crab and salmon.

McCloskey penned two sequels to that book in recent years. "Breakers" came out in 2000. Now he has released "Raiders" to complete the trilogy, and the publisher has made "Breakers" available for the first time in paperback.

The three novels tell the story of Henry "Hank" Crawford, who first came to Alaska in 1963 to seek work on a fishing boat. He developed such a passion for the sea and the fishing life that he turned his back on his upper-middle-class roots in Maryland and cast his lot with the fishing community of Kodiak.

During the course of the three books, Hank matures from a freewheeling, green "deck ape" to a middle-aged captain juggling family and financial obligations. In the process, his focus expands from a single boat deck to the big picture of worldwide fishery issues. Through all the changes, his love of fishing runs like an irresistible current.

"Fish bodies quivered against the tight meshes. When the big dip net opened, fish slurped out and thudded into the hold. Briny smells filled the air. Glassy wet covered metal and oilskins. Hank breathed the very heart of fishing again, at last," McCloskey writes near the beginning of "Raiders."

While "Highliners" told the stand-alone story of how Crawford became a fisher during the 1960s and 1970s, "Breakers" and "Raiders" are tied together, with the latter beginning immediately where the former left off. Reading the earlier books is almost essential to fully get into "Raiders."

In "Breakers," Crawford, like many other fishers, invested heavily in the lucrative Bering Sea crab fishery, only to have the crab disappear. To save his new boat, he entered with serious misgivings into a joint-venture agreement with a Japanese seafood concern.

The new book opens in 1982.

The main arc of the plot deals with Crawford's dicey relations with his Japanese contacts, played out from Tokyo boardrooms to Anchorage meetings of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to the deck of his own ship. He finds his loyalties split between the American skippers fighting to remove the foreign fleet from U.S. waters and the directors of Tsurifune Suisan Ltd., which underwrote his boat and an even bigger one -- for a price.

Circumstances force the adventurous Crawford to consider that he may have acted too rashly and gotten in over his head. He confides to his father, "My business is a gamble beyond anything you know."

A secondary plot follows his wife, the tough and tender Jody, who bucks tradition by skippering a boat herself.

All this takes place against the backdrop of intrigue ashore and action on the high seas, including the gauntlet of deadly weather, shipboard accidents and sinking boats that, melodramatic as they may seem, are only too realistic.

Unlike the previous books, more of "Raiders" deals with fishery politics. Lawyers and executives rub shoulders with the deckhands and processors who dominated the earlier novels. Readers hungry for salt spray may find scenes of meetings dry fare, but they play a major role in the bigger picture the author works into his plot.

McCloskey writes with real authority, having served in the Coast Guard and merchant marine and as a deckhand. Some scenes seem to be barely fictionalized from notes taken on the spot. And although he lives in Maryland, he obviously has invested many hours in Alaska. The only cheechako blunder is the misspelling of former governor William Egan's last name, scarcely worth mentioning in the book's context.

The author has a knack for working informational material into his adventures. He paints Crawford as a man of insatiable curiosity always eager to go out on someone else's boat, try his hand at new gear or tour a fish-related facility. At its worst, this makes for scenes tangential to the main plot, such as a riff about oyster fishing in Chesapeake Bay. But on the whole the author uses this device so deftly that he creates, through the window of his fiction, an eminently readable primer and history of late-20th century commercial fishing in Alaska.

McCloskey is also a fine writer.

He does an exceptional job portraying characters. Although the protagonist, Hank Crawford, is to some extent a fishing Everyman, his agonies and ecstasies ring true. But the book's secondary and even minor characters are particularly well drawn, with the author bringing to life a clearly delineated cast as vast and varied as in a Russian novel.

His prose, whether dealing with brawls in waterfront bars or exclusive banquets in ritzy Japanese restaurants, is robust and graceful. He can be salty or lyrical, and smoothly handles moods raw, comic or touching.

The viewpoint is masculine and American, but McCloskey takes pains to present strong female characters and give voice to the Japanese and other foreign concerns. He also hints at touchy issues such as racism, sexism, alcoholism and cultural misunderstandings.

The second and third volumes of his series are subtler than the first, but just as exciting and perhaps more relevant.

They beg the question: Why stop here? "Raiders" ends in 1984, with Crawford's two oldest children wistfully watching him head out to sea. How would the fictional Hank Crawford and the real William McCloskey handle challenges like the "Exxon Valdez" oil spill, the sea lion conservation controversy and farmed fish's undermining of commercial fisheries? Those children would be about 30 years old now, and the publisher is a bit vague about calling the books a trilogy. Hmm ... .

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who lives near Fairbanks.

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