Talk about biting the hand that feeds.
Down East Books is publishing Jim Nichols’ debut novel, Hull Creek, in which a lobsterman struggles to protect his family home, and his pride, against the interests of moneyed interlopers — swanks, as the bitter locals call ’em. Of course, this is the same company that publishes Down East, the magazine that’s practically the Swank Bible, full of fluffy feature stories on picturesque harbor towns and pages of ads for
pricey properties in those same coastal communities.
Hard to say who’s got the bigger balls in this arrangement: Nichols for pitching this book to Down East in the first place, or Down East for publishing a novel that basically tells its magazine’s readers to go fuck themselves. Whatever the case may be, I’m glad this book is in print.
Nichols’ protagonist is Troy Hull, a man of about 30 who left college and returned to his hometown to continue the family business. His parents died and left him a modest property on the titular creek, but when the catch declined, Hull took out a second mortgage to stay afloat.
When we meet Hull, he’s struggling to pay the bank and reeling from his wife’s recent betrayal — she ran off with a realtor after Hull refused to sell the old homestead. A flock of smug vultures (the aforementioned swanks) has arrived in the fictional fishing town of Pequot, and with the collusion of a couple local suck-ups, they’re angling to relieve Hull of his ancestral abode.
Hull’s childhood pal, Billy Polky, tries to help Hull keep his home by enlisting him in schemes to smuggle rope and dope from Canada. Polky “truly believes that smuggling is all right,” Hull, the narrator, realizing during a late-night run across the Bay of Fundy. “You can’t go by the rules, he says, because nobody else does. Especially not the assholes who make up the rules.”
Not unexpectedly, things don’t go as planned. Someone’s apparently tipped off the Marine Patrol (a.k.a. the “clam cops”), and if Hull gets busted, he’ll lose more than the roof over his head. Meanwhile, the wife of a blue-blooded sailor in town for the filming of a Travel Channel-type TV show is literally trying to screw Hull.
Nichols moves the plot along at a measured pace for much of the book. We get a genuine feel for Hull’s day-to-day life while we meet the characters and find our way around town, from the local bar to the tourist traps and cookie-cutter condos. True to his narrator’s sensibility, Nichols’ prose ain’t fancy. It’s muscular and matter-of-fact.
The swanks keep pushing their luck, acting like they already own the place, until they push things too far. When they get their comeuppance, you’ll want to cheer — I had to suppress the yell that climbed up my throat as I was reading — but that’s not the end of the story. There’s still one more nail-biting drug escapade, and the swanks don’t give up easily, especially since they’ve got the law on their side.
Hull Creek is a good read and an important book that movingly dramatizes the plight of Maine’s fishing families and the pressures that tourism and real estate speculation put on working waterfront communities. For subscribers to Down East, who are already seeing ads for Hull Creek in its pages, it should be required reading.
— Chris Busby