We told you a while back about the "Neil Gaiman meets Thomas Pynchon" novel Swell by Corwin Ericson — and now it's finally been published. Are you ready for Whalepunk?
We've got the first chapter of the book right here — so it's time to go away to sea!
Here's the blurb for Swell, via the Publisher's Website:
The tiny Northeast island of Bismuth keeps getting smaller for Orange Whippey.
Stranded on Wreck Rock, a bad day only gets worse when Orange is conscripted into service on board the Wendy's Mom. After a drunken fall from the ruins of a navy ship and the ill-advised ingestion of a stimulating new drug, Orange is rescued by Angie Bombadier, a fetching and forthright fellow Islander.
Things would be looking up if it wasn't for a mysterious package which goes missing.
Rival whaling factions reigniting an ancient feud when their paths cross.
Korean smugglers wanting to open a bed and breakfast.
A privacy expert planning to create a cell phone network using migrating whales.
And now, Orange is caught in the middle of it all...
Drawing from the various satiric traditions of Neil Gaiman, Thomas Pynchon, and Christopher Moore, Swell is full of legend and lore, big fish stories, and unforgettable humor.
And here's the first chapter of the book, for your entertainment and delight:
C H A P T E R O N E
Stranded and Conscripted
From my bunk, I found myself staring at the weepy ink of the Blue Öyster Cult tattoo that stained Donny's buttock. Donny Lucy was a repellent man whose sole topic of conversation was the genitals of various races and ethnicities. Some were prodigious, some were toothed, some toothsome, and a few had a unique tang that was best appreciated by he, himself. It's difficult to believe he'd done much field research into the subject. Down East islanders have a way of implying a worldliness that their biographies do not support. A few of us - well, many of us, considering that most of us are related in some way or another - have actual genetic links to voyagers to the archipelagos of cannibals and unclad princesses, and this seems to lend license to authoritative pronouncement where others might merely speculate. Donny had applied the speculum of his imagination to the orifices and organs of humanity with such vigor that he had lost sight of much else that the rest of the world considered suitable to discuss.
I was hoping hard that Donny was asleep, that his rhythmic motions were due to the waves. I was probably right, and he had probably moaned "motherfuck" and wiped his belly with one of the rank communal T-shirts due to a dream about maternal taboos and personal hygiene. Some boats have crews that are actually frisky masturbators. Masturbation is an enduring topic on most boats. Every single aspect of it, with the exception of the pleasure one might pull from it, is routinely discussed. But on some boats - say, one with a fado-crazed Portuguese - a beautiful night with flying fish and falling stars inspires the crewman to make his own arcing deposit overboard, as if to say, "I too am a resident of the Milky Way; here's my contribution to the sublime fecundity of the cosmos." In most retellings of this episode, this is the pescadoro's last thought before he's gored by a leaping swordfish.
A sleepless night spent eyeing a question mark on a man's ass is a philosophical night - How did I get here, where am I going? Etcetera. My mother says that when I got here, they called me Orange because I was a scion of harpoonists with a noble name that bespoke our lineage as natives of the island of Bismuth. And that it was rhyme-proof. And also that I was jaundiced at birth. Orange Whippey is a pair of names with plenty of precedence on our island. My nominal provenance can be found on ships' logs and public records stretching back to the early days of Yankee settlement here. It's my mother's job to answer the question of how I got here; it's my own job to say where I'm going, and all I can really say is that now that I'm in my late thirties, unmarried, and irregularly employed, I have come to realize that merely remaining alive is more of an achievement than I expected.
A surprisingly wide variety of namesakes are available to Bismuthians here off the North Atlantic coast. Our island has a winter population of just a few hundred people, but an impressive number of flip flops, Crocs, foul weather boots, and moccasins have trod upon Bismuth. We had actual natives here before the current versions of "native" arrived and gave them the Old World-crafted gifts of smallpox and Christianity.
Nobody even knows what language the naturals, as the English called them, or the skraelings, as the Norse said, spoke or what they called themselves. The Northern Indians of Europe say that their ancient ancestors lived here-in fact, Snorri the Finlindian says his people, the Northern Indians, came from right here, when our little granite speck in the cold northeast Atlantic was taller, greener, warmer and the center of a bustling archipelago.
The way Snorri tells it at his occasional Bismuth Historical Society summer afternoon guest lectures is that his people migrated from Bismuth and the rest of the islands up through what would later become Labrador and Markland and Vinland and then east across the Arctic, fighting past Scandinavia, until they settled the northern coast of Europe and formed the countries of Finlindia and Estonindia way back in deep time. Their triumphs against the Vikings and Christians made them the most hated peoples in Europe for the most of two millennia, but their lack of assimilation into European culture had brought them into a sort of vogue here in the new century.
Snorri likes to visit Bismuth to maintain his ethnic claims of nativism, and I think he just likes it here more than he's willing to tell us-I can't see the profit in lurking about here otherwise. He speaks English better than many of my fellow Islanders, and claims to speak the language of every country that borders Finlindia, including the Estonindian dialect, and can communicate many significant gestures and vocalizations with bears and whales.
When I was a kid and still learning the nuances of island kinship and nativism-which was essentially us, the Islanders, who were divisible into people I was directly related to and people I was distantly related to, and them, the strangers, who could be broken down into many subgroups based on the regularity of their return to the island-Snorri and his ilk confounded my tidily bipolar sorting of the world. I think I first noticed him as the oddly dressed man with egregious eyebrows that reached up over the brim of his cap. I naturally assumed all such foreigners were so equipped and awaited puberty when I could sprout my
own forehead feelers.
They didn't burst forth, thankfully, and by the time I could grow a reasonable mustache I had learned that in addition to Islanders and strangers, there were several billion other people on the planet who were all potential strangers whom I would never have to meet if I stuck it out here on Bismuth. Snorri wasn't the only Finlindian to spend time on the island. There are, presumably, brochures about Bismuth on Northern Indian travel agency shelves, but if you don't own your own boat like Snorri, this is an expensive destination involving an intercontinental flight, car rental, and a ferry ride, and then a stay at an inn or a mildly shabby rental house maintained by an uncaring person such as myself.
It's only been recently that another Northern Indian boat has frequented our waters. Unfamiliar boats, especially exotic ones capable of crossing the Atlantic, are watched like potentially rabid raccoons, so Waldena the Estonindian and her crew did not exactly sneak into our harbor. I hardly knew anything about her, though. She didn't seem like the ethnotouristic type.
She and her crew drank at the island's only permanent restaurant, the Topsoil, where they gained a reputation for being cryptic and cold, which, considering our own legendary maziness and unamiability, is a significant cultural achievement. When I worked in the Topsoil kitchen, the waitresses hated serving them and found them stingy with tips, flirtation, and the English language. Waldena was the one who made me feel uneasy.
Her Estonindian hardboys were variants of a breed of masculinity I knew well enough already. She, however, snatched a little bit of my breath each time I saw her. She knew my name and that fact thrilled and frightened me unreasonably. Thoughts of beautiful exotic strangers who knew my name had sustained me through many kitchen shifts and fishing trips, but she was the first real one I'd ever encountered.
She and Snorri, like their countrymen, did not get along well. It's difficult for me to see the difference between an Estonindian and a Finlindian, but to them, it's as obvious as the difference between a Bostonian and a New Yorker, and one confuses the two at one's own peril. They're both the same race of people, inasmuch as "race" and "people" are meaningful terms. Their great schism lay in their treatment of whales, which represented the quintessence of cultural values to each of them. The Finlindians were pastoralists. They herded their whales and had domesticated breeds of them back before anyone in North American had even laid eyes on a goat. The Estonindians were hunters; as far as they were concerned, any domesticated fjord-bred Finlindian whale was a sad mutant aberration.
The people of the North Indies had maintained their traditional culture with much more zeal than their national neighbors. There were probably at least a few rune-covered centuries-old spoons in each Northern Indian kitchen from back in the day when people could really make spoons. Their language, which was mostly impenetrable to outsiders, was both antagonistically conservative - in the sense that old words died hard - and curiously round-heeled, since their lexicons would fall over, legs in the air, for anything new that came their way. So in the cutlery drawer next to the venerable spoonage - a good example of where English fails; we just don't have the vocabulary for the daily respect a Northern Indian has for proper utensils - were plastic sporks, which they kept for guests who wouldn't understand their spoons. Likewise for their spork-like language. They had no problem adding new terms like "cell phone" to the language, but returned happily to anachronistic phrases like "Hobomac spits in Loki's ear" for "wrong number." Their national languages had subdivided centuries ago, but they could seemingly understand each other the way a Mainer could follow a Cajun. I think their fervor for telecommunications might have its
origin in their culture's automatic inclusion of all their history in so much of their daily life. Their cell phones were a logical next step from the rune stones and sagas that communicated to them across the gulfs of time. One of Snorri's devices was encased in yellowed ivory that I bet his ancestors had set aside in anticipation of the invention of mobile technology.
Even their names were a combination of the traditional and the progressive. Northern Indian surnames were post-parental; for instance, if Snorri-who, as far as I knew did not yet have a last name - had a daughter named Thora, his own name would change to Snorri Thorasfottir. Thus there were illegitimate parents-fathers and mothers with no last names-but not children.
This practice is maintained in America by little kids who referred to their friends' parents as "Mrs. Larrysmother" and such. They loved proper names over there. Their houses, cars, and heirloom spoons all had proper names-some even had secret names which would only be whispered once in a lifetime.
Snorri's boat, the Honeypaws, was like that. "Honeypaws" was just a nickname - he'd never tell anyone the boat's real name. Snorri's claim to nativism on our island was backed up with his own translations of fragments of sagas and eddas that were themselves translations of vellums long lost to kleptomaniacal Irish monks and Norse plunderers. The Northern Indian claim to coastal northeast America seemed like a case of wannabe colonialism to the rest of Western Europe until early twentieth-century linguists from Estonindia proved their language had origins in the Indo-American family instead of the Indo-European, like the rest of the Europe. Why the ancient Indians left Bismuth baffles historians. Snorri's explanations involve whales, bears, magic, and a quest for the Northern Indian version of El Dorado-Hyperborea, the mythical city of ivory and crystal hidden away at the North Pole. There's actually little Snorri tells anyone that doesn't start with a litany of Important Herring of Mythology or a sketch of what the world was like before the homo sapiens arrivistes paddled onto the stage. Most of the Indians I know are people whom Snorri calls cousins and who think Snorri is a pedantic kook. My own family name is Whippey, as it was for my Yankee ancestors, who saw themselves as the original inhabitants of Bismuth. The Whippeys and Oranges of yore were whalers and some were even captains. Many were Quakers, which meant they saw their profit margins fulfilled by working indentured servants to death instead of African slaves. This moral high ground, along with our geographic isolation, gave us a sense of dominion over all the other peoples
and creatures of the planet, which is why we pretend our current endemic poverty is ennobling.
There were Indians, and there are Yankees, but Bismuth has more exotic surnames on its gravestones than Ellis Island does on its customs logs. Not that there are many actual bodies in our graveyards. For every family plot with its listing headstones, there's a lichen-spangled marble cenotaph with a dozen names of sailors who died at sea. There's a cenotaph for Bismuthians who died trying to rescue those who died at sea. There's even a memorial for dogs that died trying to rescue the shipwrecked. There is a colored graveyard for Africans and French-Canadians. There's a praying Indian graveyard. After death became less segregated, Portuguese, Basque, Hawaiian, and Scandinavian names became as common on the stones as the Yankees' own biblical concordance of graven names. I've broken some of the cardinal rules of island life. I probably should have died at sea, although that's not as popular as it once was. Or I shouldn't have come back from the mainland when I was finished wasting the state's money and my professors' time at Norumbega University. I should have fixed up my dad's lobster boat, the Beothuk, into a swordfishing charter boat instead of watching it rot through most of my twenties. If I were to remain here on Bismuth, unmarried and insufficiently employed, the least I could have done is be found frozen to death in my house after a winter of drinking Sterno. I left Bismuth for college in America because I just couldn't take it any longer on my island. And because it was mostly free. We have a high school on the island; all anyone has to do is get a B average, and a scholarship for the state university awaits. This is because we are both clinically disadvantaged and a cultural institution - and because there are so few of us that actually make it to college, the subsidy is chump change for the state.
The first complete rotation of my now cyclic discontent occurred when I came back to Bismuth because I just couldn't take it any longer in America. The continent was as big and stupid as my aunt's hairdo and my other uncle's gut. I was accustomed to people who were experts at being clannish and small-minded; I thought my classmates' callow attempts at bigotry and the school's attempt at bureaucratic insularity were laughably inept.
I graduated in the late 1980s and returned that summer. The bequeathers of my scholarships should have been delighted, since their plan all along had been to enlighten us with culture and higher education. It's odd though; that's not how islanders see it. Getting an off-island education isn't necessarily a stigma - as long as one doesn't flaunt it-but returning to the island is somehow an automatic tragedy, as if the rest of your island life were a sequel that should never have been filmed. Instead, it was my parents who fled the island, once I returned and settled back into the house, which they had tried to call "their" house for a while, but which I remembered as "ours." I'm third generation of Whippey here, which isn't that big a historic deal the way it might be elsewhere. It does mean that the house was paid for long ago and the mock-mortgage I'm supposed to be sending my father in Florida every month is just his way of opposing what he sees as my desuetude, though that is not the way he would phrase it. I oppose his opposition, naturally, by not paying him very often. I presume this relationship will continue until one of us dies, at which point we will have to re-negotiate.
I'm not the only member of my species here. Fishing is almost impossibly expensive as a small business on Bismuth and everywhere else in the Northeast. It was getting to be that one could count on fishing for providing severed fingers, bankruptcy, and divorce, but not a living wage. I crewed here and there, mostly with Mr. Lucy on his stupid boat. I worked in the kitchen sometimes at the Topsoil. There were other guys like me on Bismuth. There always were. Everyone likes to point out the Quaker captains' houses in town, but throughout history most Bismuthians were crew. Centuries after whaling ended and decades after fishing sputtered out, our island's population has thinned dramatically, and men such as myself are considered lucky to find work of any kind. Personally, I do not consider finding work to be any kind of luck at all and have probably said so too publicly. The one cardinal rule I could not break was that Islanders will always be Islanders, which is as much an ancestry as it is an albatross.
So, I do know something of where I came from, mostly because I hardly left. How I got to be on Mr. Lucy's trawler, the Wendy's Mom, skippered by Mr. Lucy-the scourge of my precious idle time-and crewed by his doltish son, Donny-my nemesis and companion since birth-is a tale of rescue and near-shipwreck that begins on an even punier granite speck. Wreck Rock is reachable two ways: by boat, with difficulty, at high tide, and by mudshoe at low, but it's within shouting distance of shore. Wreck Rock's really Osgood Isle, named for the Englishman who supposedly stood upon it and declared New England to be rich in sassafras — which he thought was a cure for syphilis — and gold and enslaveable people and all his. It goes by Wreck Rock amongst locals for self-evident reasons. I'd had his island to myself since I'd unwisely decided to mudwalk out there and sieve for seagum.
The best mudshoes are made from old-school lobster traps and resembled snowshoes. Mine had been cardboard reinforced with more cardboard, and I had lost them mid-trudge. That muck at low tide is worse than quicksand, and I was knee-deep with my toes being bathed in snails' digestive juices before I
realized the shit I was in. If there's one thing to be learned from Tarzan movies, it's that without a vine or helpful elephant, quicksand is lethal. The arrogant explorer has enough time to realize just what a horrible man he is, and, if he'd been more decent, a passing chimpanzee would have extended a branch to him. But he'd been a bad bwana, and, after a couple of gloopy air bubbles, his safari hat is the only thing that disturbs the dun porridge.
But we Bismuthians have spent centuries scrounging our shoreline, and although most of us can't swim, we do know what to do when the ooze has seized us: we lean forward and bellycrawl. Which is how I managed to lose my seagum gear and spend the afternoon covered in mud on Wreck Rock shouting and waving until Donny's sister noticed me. When she came back, Wendy Lucy told me that their dad was going out scalloping with the tide at about five AM, and he'd pick me up then. "How come you didn't crawl back?" she yelled across the mudflat. Which then became more or less my main topic for ponderment, until it was replaced by Donny's BÖC tat onboard the Wendy's Mom.
Wreck Rock is said to have gone missing a few times. It's just a jumble of gray rocks with a seaweed skirt, and within its cracks and more permanent puddles it's the home to any number of bitey, stingy, and pokey things-which, if I had died there, would have eaten and lived within my body for months as they attended to the final stages of my disassembly. I suppose some serious tide could swamp the rocks for some period, and bigger landmasses have been left off charts. It's certainly legendary on Bismuth, inasmuch that there are no historical records or witnesses to anything that is claimed to have occurred there.
If the gulls could tell its story, it would be an epic of shitting and screaming, and their bards did indeed tell me that tale all through the daylight hours. The seagulls would probably have been the second or third stage in my disassembly. I imagine part of what they were screaming was their intent to start in on the soft parts of me as soon as I was too putrefied to defend myself. I challenged their sovereignty of the rock for a while, as I searched for artifacts useful to my survival, or which would at least distract me for a few minutes. I ascertained that the Viking runes remained nowhere to be found, never mind deciphered, that boxes of booze stashed there by prohibition-era Kennedys remained hidden, and that nothing even vaguely dubloonish was to be discovered.
"You could have just crawled back!" yelled Wendy again, "Why didn't you crawl back?!" Maybe she thought I was being petulant, but I was trying to figure why that hadn't occurred to me back on the mud. She answered for me: "You asshole!"
True enough. I would have said "idiot," but I couldn't muster much of a counter-argument. Wendy and I had once shared something more than a clinch in the old Korean War watchtower. I don't think she had ever liked me much in high school, but by the time I was twenty-five and back on the island, I had grown out of my adolescent uglies - my limbs were mostly even, my facial features fairly congruent, plenty of hair - and I hadn't yet acquired the paunch and hygienic decrepitude that middleaged, single male Islanders usually exhibit. The same could have been said for her. The moon washed the concrete walls of the war ruin to a fleecy gray, the humid ocean breeze made undressing seem reasonable, and, well, there was beer and weed. But by twenty-five, we are supposed to be in the final stages of this sort of mating behavior; your destiny had already shipped you off-island, or you were going to stay and further your genetic line. Which is to say we were both old enough to know I should have been nicer to her afterward or at least spoken with her now and then since.
Throughout that day, as I explored the rock and made treaties with the gulls, I received visitors. Wendy came down the beach again to test her rock-throwing skills. By her third visit, we were back on waving terms. Nathan walked by with his dog and waved to me. Manuel and his guys chugged by on the Manny's Girls and waved to me. Mitchell drove by in his pick-up and shouted that Mr. Lucy would pick me up later, and I yelled back that I already knew and, "Would you feed Rover for me?"
He waved. Rover is my cat, Mitchell is my neighbor. Late in the afternoon, three strangers in kayaks, all women, paddled by. "We could probably rescue you if we have to," one yelled. I just waved. "I'll report you, OK?" I said I was all set, but she was fussing with her tricorder or cell phone or whatever it was on the lanyard she'd pulled from beneath her jacket.
"There's no reception," she shouted. I told her I was still all set.
A little after dark, Mitchell came back and shined his truck's headlights onto the rock from the beach. "Hey, Orange," he called.
"Where's your pot?"
"In the cabinet under the coffee maker."
"No, I found that, where's your weed?"
I couldn't really see why the seagulls felt they needed sole possession of the rock. They didn't do anything other than shit and screech and flap around. They didn't have nests here, and they didn't seem to be bothering with the mussels and such. Eventually, they grew accustomed to me and reduced their strafings and bombardments to runs every five or six minutes. I didn't know if a human skull would hold together long in the water. I also didn't know if a hermit crab would grow to fill up a shell that size. But I could see why the crabs were curious about me. They were willing to walk up my fingers and well up my arms, presumably to investigate whether they could make off with any parts of me for residences. The barnacles and I had relatively little to say to each other. In time, I realized I was going to be without anything to eat or drink until the next day. I figured, though, I'd gone twice that time without any sustenance and without even a conscious thought. All I needed to do was nothing - just loaf and sleep. What I hadn't factored into my equation was sobriety. One very important resource to surviving an entire night on a rock is alcohol. There were all sorts of substances that can get you by, but not on the rock. I made it though. My power to remain and do nothing has only strengthened over the years, even if my ability to sleep has deteriorated.
Sometime around dawn, after my night of surpassingly cold discomfort, the Wendy's Mom arrived. There's no real way to land at the rock, so Donny threw me a line while his dad kept the bow into the waves. I held the line and waded out a bit onto a slippery hump of seaweed. Then Mr. Lucy opened up the throttle and towed me away. That night had been one of the less pleasant ones of my life, but I was surprised by how much worse I could feel after having been dragged off the rock, through the frigid water, and onto the boat. Mr. Lucy figured I owed him a trip's labor for the tow and told me to go below and get dressed. Donny let me choose from the pile of rank, communal clothes and told me his sister said I was an asshole.
I don't know why God rammed an oar up Mr. Lucy's ass, but Mr. Lucy seemed to use it to his advantage. One could muse that it attracted some sort of telluric current, one that charged his plodding determination to wring every last drop of suffering from a day that was otherwise merely soaked in toil. As one of God's stiff and unbending agents upon the earth, Mr. Lucy saw to cultivating his rectitude into a salty pillar of disagreeability and impossibly regular adherence to an agenda of self-abuse that began long before dawn each day and ended each evening with the man making arrangements with his Lord to find the next day colder, rainier, and full of heavier things to make other people lift.
From what I know of dawn, it is an unaccommodating place where one's ears ring constantly, and gravity is twice normal. Its sky casts an ulcerous pink haze; the atmosphere enters one's body to give new life to every pain and ache that had ever resided therein. Those who arrive at dawn find themselves there too late or too early, beset by boiling stomachs and curdling brains, doomed to either wait for or rush to whatever burdensome beasts that they must carry to the far horizon of the land of the rising sun.
The lords of dawn are men such as Mr. Lucy. Their boats and trucks scrub away the shadows before them each morning, and they bide their time in the empty hours fashioning yokes and manacles for the unwary who stumble into their toils. They remember when dawn was hours earlier and when they had to kill a hundred Nazis every morning just to get to the percolator. They knew that if every young man in this God-fearing country would just get up at 5:30 AM and perform a modest flag ceremony, the upwelling of patriotism and personal pride would hasten Judgment Day upon us and we could get an early start on adoring Jesus in the afterlife before the tourists arrived.
Thus was I employed upon Mr. Lucy's trawler, the Wendy's Mom, despite my abhorrence of all manners of trials, toils, tribulations, and especially getting up early to go a-scalloping.