The press materials for When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man make a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to obscure the fact that debut novelist Nick Dybek is the son of Stuart Dybek, one of the most revered Chicago writers. That desire for distance is understandable, given the considerable literary shadow Dybek’s father casts, but a strength and clarity of vision has clearly passed from father to son. Like the raging sea the novel romanticizes, Captain Flint is a hypnotic, relentless debut that explores every man’s capability to become evil, and it introduces the younger Dybek as a thrilling talent to watch.
Set on Loyalty Island, a fictional secluded fishing community on the Pacific coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Captain Flint centers on Cal, a 14-year-old obsessed with Treasure Island and the crab boat his father works on. His mother is flighty, not meant for the confined solitude of life as a fisherman’s wife. She’s the more cultured parent, constantly playing records in her basement studio, but she’s also apathetic and detached.
John Gaunt, owner of the entire crabbing fleet, all the equipment, and the fishing licenses that keep the town afloat, is dying, and his only son and heir, Richard, plans to sell everything. Faced with the town’s devastation, Cal’s father and the other ship captains take matters into their own hands to ensure Loyalty Island’s future, and more importantly, their ability to continue doing the one thing that gives their lives meaning.
Captain Flint is a bildungsroman that draws inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Cannery Row, and The Old Man And The Sea, all of which it blends into a dark portrait of an isolated town that either converts citizens to fishing zealotry or permanently ostracizes the uninitiated. Cal’s parents’ marriage is in shambles—John Gaunt was his mother’s only friend, perhaps more, and his father is increasingly hostile and distant. The only way to know Cal survives the dire circumstances is that he narrates the book.
Like most fishing, mining, and farming communities in fiction, Loyalty Island is bleak, inconstantly successful, and inescapable. The boys grow up and go to the boats; the women stay on shore. When the men are at sea, they dream of land; when on land, they remain haunted by the sea. Dybek does well to sketch every character in small, sharp strokes, as Cal slowly winds out biographical details to demonstrate how intricately connected all the families are.
The men tell tales, like the origin of John Gaunt’s fishing empire, or one sailor’s chilling brush with death inside a crab pot quickly sinking to the bottom of the ocean. But Cal never sets foot on the crabbing boats, and Dybek keeps the narrative within his point of view, never attempting to capture the intensity of Deadliest Catch or Moby Dick on the high seas. Instead, Cal suffers intense longing for a true place on Loyalty Island among the sailors, but also the cruel knowledge that he will be one of the few to escape that harsh life—a guilt he shares with exiled outcast Richard Gaunt.
Like every character in Dybek’s story, Captain Flint has a few glaring flaws. Once Cal is presented with a final decision, he plays all of his cards at once in a rush to an inevitable, unseen, morbid end without the same pause for moral reflection that earlier quandaries earned. And though Cal narrates the story from 14 years in the future, Dybek offers little connective tissue showing how formative events like the destruction of his parents’ marriage or the catastrophic ramifications of a climactic phone call affect his maturation and adult life. Still, Dybek’s strength of voice and confident command over Loyalty Island’s obsessive fishing community is enough to cement this seaside tale of morality’s limitations as a terrific debut.