F/V Black Sheep|
Mark S. Williams
Silver Perch Press, 336pp, $19.95
F/V Black Sheep seems to defy literary categorization but must be a memoir. Gloucester Fisherman, Mark Williams writes about his true-life experiences in the long tradition of American "yarn spinning," -telling tall tales by the firelight which extol the feats of larger than life heroes. He swears it's all true. And he's a heck of a story teller.
Williams' language is charged with adrenaline, punctuated with the vocabulary of the street, graced with a sly usually self-deprecating humor and informed by an almost hyper-awareness of the world around him. Whether it's the wide ocean or a waterside barroom there's only the occasional sniggling wisp of a doubt that everything happened just as Williams describes it.
The book opens on just another day working on the water. He's hauling ten trap trawls off Gloucester. "Cat fast" (a favorite phrase the author), Williams is in trouble, caught in a trawl line which grindingly plays out dragging Williams with it. Crushed against stern grasping to keep from being hauled to the bottom, his life passes before him.
In the series of short chapters that follow, Williams recalls outrageous and funny and violent scenes from his first job at 13 at Empire Fish where his dad is the foreman to a day just a while ago when he rescues a wiped-out female windsurfer from certain drowning and is subsequently treated to an afternoon delight.
Williams's father and mentor plays a large role in the early memories. Ted teaches him to swim in one lesson, how to handle a gun, how to throw a baseball, and how, after his first day of work at the packing plant, to behave in a working man's bar. "Cigarette butts and shiny fish scales littered the sawdust covered floor. It was really filthy. I had never seen such a revolting floor. I absolutely loved it...[T]he click of Zippo lighters being snapped open and shut echoed through the bar like crickets." Confronting mother on arriving home smelling of beer and "floozy perfume" she (who never swears) listens to about a minute's worth of lame lies from her two guilty males, pronounces "bull----!" and sends them off to clean up.
A series of Ds and Fs in public school lands Williams in the parochial school classroom of Sister Mary Rose and her wooden blackboard pointer. After the boy's first scar-making encounter, his father advises the nun, "don't break anything if possible." Williams takes the opportunity of the book to thank her. "Everything I have ever learned through all these years I have learned because I can read. I don't think I ever did thank that cranky, old, man-hating nun, so I believe I will now...thank you ma'am."
Later, when his father runs for the school board in an attempt to put discipline back in the public school, Williams describes him as, "blazingly honest, brutally truthful, with staunch beliefs that something is either right or wrong, and with no tolerance for bull----, he was doomed as an American politician forever." His son would not fare better.
Ted's lifelong mantra to Mark was, "think. Don't panic. When you panic, you're dead." Over and over in these tales, this advice proves to be a lifesaver. When Williams finally returns his narrative to the opening scene of his imminent drowning, his father's words are in his head as he is pulled over the stern to the bottom by the weight of the trawl. And he lives to tell that tale as well.
F/V Black Sheep is an irreverent and heart-warming, funny and frank and fantastical account of a working man's life, "and women like it, too," says the author. "I didn't think they would."