- by Carol Standish
Lucas “Lucky” Lunt fishes out of his father’s wooden lobster boat, Wooden Nickel and is the hard-working anti-hero of the novel of the same name (The Wooden Nickel, Little, Brown and Co, 352pp, $23.95). The boat, built in 1971, is in better shape than Lucky. She’s had her tubes reamed and is running cool and sweet but Lucky’s own heart “starts knocking after the first string of traps and he’s got to sit down and have a Marlboro and a Rolling Rock to settle it down which means he can’t haul half what he used to in a day.” He’s had to mortgage his house “that had been Lunt property free and clear for a hundred years” to pay for the boat’s rebuild and his own angioplasties.
And if the shame of debt and desperation of the failing body of a physical man isn’t enough, the litany of woes only piles up in his struggle to bring his life under the veil of control. As the novel develops, “His stern man is pregnant, his wife has moved in with a bull dyke welder out at the art colony, neither of his kids will talk to him, every few hours his heart flops like a mackerel, and he’s having breakfast alone on a Sunday morning at 5 A.M. Every Sunday of his married life he came down stairs to a stack of buttered blueberry pancakes, now he’s listening to Tanya Tucker’s ‘Riding out the Heartbreak’ on High Country 104, having a cigarette and sharing a can of King Oscar sardines with Alfie the cat.”
In short, Lucky is trapped and doomed, just like the lobsters he hauls off the ocean floor. which is not to say that the reader gives up on old Luck. The more he flails, the more you care. He is a surprisingly endearing guy, for an unsympathetic everyman who offends absolutely everyone, starting with all of you who are sensitive to the “F” word and country club spelled without an “o.” Profanity and obscenity go with the territory. They are part of his impressive but unconventional repertoire of skills. He swears eloquently. He knows marine engines of all stripes inside out. He can identify his fellow fishermen in a fog by their unique boat engine sounds on the water and their truck sounds on the land. He can call the make of a vehicle by the “slant of its headlights.” He knows the topography of the bottom of his fishing territory like the road to his house. He knows the weather like a seer. And he sees the world at large from the bottom of the pile—his ironic, twisted bitterness is laced with a bleak humor that only can thrive in the mind of an individual who knows his position in the world—and raves against it.
Alert, aware, and intelligent—in spite of his eighth grade education—Lucky’s skills are, nevertheless, woefully lacking. He is a salty Maine coast combination of Don Quixote and Gulliver, just ten degrees off and right on but it doesn’t matter. The Episcopalians from away will take over the world (or at least Lucky’s part of it).
Author, William Carpenter, has created a vivid larger than life character but he wraps him up in metaphor a bit heavy-handedly. Lucky too frequently identifies with the lobsters he traps, likens his heart to a marine engine, and compares his human relationships (unfavorably) with those he enjoys with his more reliable companions, machines. In fact, his exaggerated character is as far over the top as the supporting characters, especially the women, are under the radar. The family, the girl friend, the rich summer folk and the fellow-suffering fisherman are more like cardboard set ups, a target for Lucky’s anger, than fully fledged characters.
Carpenter’s language is, for the most part, finely-honed, rich and pleasurable, his observations keen, “they walk like they’ve never been on land.” Lapses, however, are all the more glaring for their virtuosic surroundings. Overuse of the phrase, “finest kind” is jarring and he indulges occasionally in the untra-clever phrase "the bow...cuts the chop like a knife going through margarine." Inconsistencies of character are also troublesome. Can Lucky, an archetypal throwback of a Maine Lobsterman, really swim? As an obstreperous adherent to the morals of a bygone (better) age would he hit a woman? If he hits his pregnant sternman, why not his wife, she’s a real pill?
The title like The Wooden Nickel, resonant with the mixed connotations of pleasure and worthlessness is provocative but unrevealing of the author's intent. Was this ambitious novel written as a parody, a social commentary, a political satire, a polemic or a black comedy? No matter how it is read, it will be hard to put down. Lucky is just that kinda guy.