The Last Fish Tale|
Ballantine Books, 269pp , $25
I've been a fan of Mark Kurlansky's non-fiction since 1998 when I read Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (review). He's since written Salt: A World History and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell - a quirky culinary history of New York City, which was a lot of fun to read. I mean, who'd ever think of writing about New York City from the point of view of an oyster-and no, the oyster is not the narrator!
Because the subject of his latest work, Gloucester, Massachusetts is dear to my heart, I was expecting pure pleasure. However, The Last Fish Tale - The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town, does not measure up to the author's previous work.
Kurlansky introduces the city of today in a prologue that describes the local tradition of “pole walking” an exercise designed to simultaneously celebrate and make fun of macho fisherman's skills. In a variety of costumes, after much alcoholic courage has been imbibed, a fair charge of the city's young and not so young men attempt to walk a well-greased pole placed horizontally from a platform over the icy North Atlantic waters of Gloucester Harbor. It's a lively beginning, promising to reveal other equally peculiar cultural traditions of “America's oldest fishing port and most original town.”
After summarizing the city's early history, from Native American habitation of the area through the age of European exploration and the Puritan enclave, the author wades into the contemporary city's ethnic makeup, describing wave after wave of immigrants from European fisheries. Gloucester neighborhoods have been home to Irish, Scandinavian, Portuguese and Sicilian fishing families, in some cases, for centuries. In typical Kurlansky fashion, he garnishes these passages with the occasional recipe, in this case, usually a chowder or fish soup.
But there's more to Gloucester than fishing and the author's lens begins to blur as he tackles explanations of the city's unique brand of politics, the long-lived art colonies and the effects of the tourist invasion.
The Last Fish Tale is a hodge-podge of impressions and opinions that are often amusing and frequently informative but what seems to be missing is an organizing principle-the cod or the oyster-that links the discussion to a wider consequence. The crisp amassing of tidal waves of detail that resolves into useful, sometimes startling insights--never builds.
At 269 pages, 35 of which are devoted to a discussion of contemporary European fishing towns (which I suspect is an attempt to relate his subject to some sort of broader issue), there simply aren't enough words employed to do justice to such a complex subject. Even with the additional gravitas supplied by quotations from Charles Olson, Gloucester's poet laureate, The Last Fish Tale, is a distant cousin to Kurlansky's best work. Then again, my personal affection for Gloucester and her complex past, present and future may have made me overly critical. You'll have to read it yourself.