After seeing Some Hellish by Nicholas Herring win the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize late last year, I made the mental note to dig it out of my (rapidly expanding) bookshelves and give it a try. The fact that it didn’t have a clear plot scared me away from it until now, but I figured it must have some amazing qualities otherwise to have won this prestigious award, especially as a debut novel. After a slow start, I was caught up in the rolling waves of the protagonist’s life, a fisherman living off his lobster season. There’s a random rise and fall of action in this one, so it won’t be for everyone, but the writing and moments of beauty are what kept me turning the pages. The hilarious maritime slang helped too.
Herring and his buddy Gerry are lobster fisherman. Herring has his own boat, and together they spend significant amounts of time preparing for the season: cleaning up and repairing traps, repainting buoys, etc. Money is extremely tight as it is for most people on this island (I believe it’s Prince Edward Island this takes place on, but I’m not sure it’s every really stated outright where they are located). Drinking daily, driving drunk, and doing drugs regularly are all parts of Herring and Gerry’s life as well, and because of this, Herring’s wife has left him and taken their two daughters with her. They occasionally see each other, but its strained, and Herring is quite clearly adrift without them. A very strange, almost miraculous situation occurs in Herring’s life, which shocks not only the reader, but everyone in their harbour, including the other fisherman who regarded Herring with little more than suspicion and contempt. To avoid spoilers I’m being vague on purpose, but the ripple affects of this situation spark new life into the characters, offering hope to this small community that is in dire need of some optimism.
This book won’t be for everyone; the plot meanders, and there are many phrases that are hard to understand when not familiar with this area of Canada (which I am not, but wish I was!). Herring and Gerry live a life foreign to many; car crashes are common, and they get themselves into a few drug-fueled benders that typically end in lost jobs, fistfights, and broken furniture. Still, these two characters are so well-drawn that you get the sense they are simply doing the best they can with what little they have been given, and it’s entertaining to follow them along on their adventures, even though they are cringe-inducing. And there’s no question as how to hard-working they are; the life of a fisherman is a difficult one with little money and lots of solitude to show for it.
Speaking of odd phrasing; I chuckled my way through this book, despite the dire situations Herring and Gerry find themselves in. The sayings these men use (and they are almost all men, very few female characters in this book) are crude but hilarious. A few of my favourites:
“Herring asked him how the day was going.
‘Oh, ya know, up and down like a hooker’s skirt,’ said Willy Lyon, the movements of his weathered face inappreciable and mere, as economical as possible”.-p. 58 of Some Hellish by Nicholas Herring, ARC
“‘Gerry, ya still tryin’ to get around with that Georgetown license of yers?’ said John.
‘Does a duck’s boner drag weeds there, John?’ said Gerry”.-p. 88
“‘I used to work with this one fella. We called him Tommy Two-Hammers ‘cos he always carried two hammers around with him. Never used either of ’em. And as useless as a screen door on a goddamn submarine.”‘-p. 289
So why did this book win such a massive award? It wasn’t because of the plotting, and even though I enjoyed it, the dialogue and phrasing wasn’t enough to justify an honour such as this. It’s the characters that drew me in, shocked me, and warmed my heart all at the same time. I couldn’t believe I was sympathizing with men that drove drunk, when in ‘real life’, I’m disgusted with that behaviour; it’s unjustifiable putting others lives in danger like that. Yet, Herring shows us the heart and soul behind these terrible acts, and we can’t help but sympathize and cheer them on. It’s not an excuse for their actions, but the pain and suffering they experience and witness in others helps us understand their destructive behaviour. And it’s not all about pity either – they are witness to a natural wonder many of us will never see ourselves, so in some ways, they are lucky too, and the author holds this dichotomy for the reader in an incredibly effective way.