Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book not review

I dreaded reading this book, so maybe that colored my reaction to it somewhat. But since the library limits the time in which one must do such reading, I soldiered on, sure that it would be in some way rewarding, and I would get it back to the next unfortunate.
Every eight paragraphs or so, I would have to stop to seethe or check a streetmap or go back to find a contradiction planted three pages earlier. So, there was that.
I will admit that Rory Nugent is a lyrical and beautifully poetic -- if idiosyncratically gimmicky and affected -- writer. Whom I remember personally only as a local crank.
And now I know why he always seemed so cranky: Because if this book is any indicator, he hung around with the biggest losers in New Bedford and possibly in all of Southeastern New England. He introduces these fictional fanciful conglomerate personalities in Down at the Docks, a miserable gazette of slanders, half-apprehensions, urban legends,and hyperbole which allow a cabal of caricatures to engage in grousing and gossipy distortions. Oddly, it doesn't seem that any of these characters live in the same town or even on the same coast. One of them isn't, but you don't know when, even though he gives current teevee touchstones that don't really settle anything. Much of the book seems to wander from decade to decade, and the characters don't seem to know each other, even while working the same waterfront.
But maybe that's what Nugent is saying.
That the joke's on "lubbers."
Whatever we do is invisible to these characters "at the docks." After all, they don't seem to get more than a couple of blocks past the City Pier. There are no museums or theaters or galleries or musicians or philanthropic enterprises in the book. And not one character down there has ever given a dime to support any museum or theater or gallery or musician or philanthropic enterprise. These people don't donate. They don't participate. They don't communicate. So, thanks Rory, for letting us know what they're thinking.
Besides "not about the rest of town."
"O, woe are the empty buildings and rusty hulks at the wharves... o, what corruption there must be that turns all the residents to drugs and crime!"
Yeah, we get it!
Nugent's geography of New Bedford is that of a straining tourist, not that of a longtime city resident. One imaginary ancient sage mariner that we meet can see the docks of the waterfront from behind the Public Library (The truth? You can barely see the docks on the waterfront from the roof of the Public Library because there's five blocks of buildings and trees in the way). Describing the famous National Club (rumored to soon become a steakhouse, btw) as "hard by the docks" is okay if you ignore the six-lane highway that keeps the National from actually being "hard by the docks."
On the back of the book is the ISBN barcode that insists that the book belongs in the "sociology" section. The copyright page also gives the Library of Congress' misreckoning of the book as 1.New Bedford (Mass.)--History. I warn any sociologist or historian to reconsider that gubmint labeling. Accounts of anecdotal and apocryphal tales that have blown around the docks and wafted up into town are not "history."
That's "gossip."
That's not to say that Down at the Docks is not well-researched. But besides consulting magazine clippings and quoting from the World Almanac, it's the kind of research that you can get by sitting at a table in a bar or restaurant or -- in my case -- at work. Anecdotal and apocryphal tales of rumors, told with a sneer and a wink, can be entertaining. I've heard all of the cute and naughty stories about scrimshaw "ladies' toys" and sperm whale penises in closets. Because I know some of the people who made up those stories.
And I had to pack, move, catalog, and find archival storage for all of that.
The chapter everyone giggles about in the reviews, "Whalebone," is typical of Nugent's breezy carelessness. After four chapters of constantly reminding the reader that New Bedford is a dying city of hookers and thugs and indigent low-class parasites sucking off the fishing industry for handouts and careers, Nugent paints a portrait of the Great Mary of Nantucket. First, though, he has to get to the obligatory and patronizing "horny dykes dancing in the parking lot" scene and then, in an attempt at atonement, introduces a "woman in nontraditional careers" bit. Then we get to the "history" -- seen through the smoky lens of a some fictional drama queen.
Nugent misidentifies the historic island's community as "Puritan" and only recognizes Mary Coffin Starbuck as a Quaker when it's convenient -- after playing out a tedious and assuredly inaccurate period drama of domestic abuse. Through the spooky rich old lady narrator, that fancy becomes some kind of comic book origin story which turns the good women of Nantucket into some kind of lesbian Illuminati.
And what the hell are we doing on Nantucket in the first place? Not that I have any problem with lesbian Illuminati, but, don't you pad the book out enough in the last rambling chapter, where you simply list all the negative aspects of New Bedford. Again.
Nugent is insistent about what he perceives as the real character of New Bedford: The Mob controls everything ("The Mob" is either "unions" or that one guy from Providence called "Patriarca") . People don't conjugate the verb "to be" so they all sound like pirates or end words with "-like" so that they sound like an Irish carpenter; they say "stick" when they mean "a thousand dollars" and "cheese" when the mean "money." Everybody hates "the man," and "the man" is anyone who isn't "them." Surrounded by PCBs, losers, drug smuggling, substandard English, anti-federalism, teens with semiautomatic weapons, constant sewage overflows, racist violence, violent racists, high school dropouts, drug addicts, and drunks, their businesses fail and they swindle somebody in order to get by. And they wear oilskins. I do admire how he tried to avoid the "cobblestone versus Belgian block" controversy by using macadam. (Unfortunately, that is also wrong.)
Oh, and thanks for reminding everybody about "Big Dan's."

One night while perusing the selection of gins behind the open bar at an arts fundraiser gala in New Bedford, a waspish yachtie cornered your Third Mate in what I thought was an attempt to accredit his own salty seaman cred (which, incidentally, was already substantial). "Buzz" hiccupped his way through bawdy tales he had heard while volunteering at the Nantucket Historical Society. A few moments of that was entertaining enough.
We don't all know the work required on the ships that provide the world with scallops, but we don't need to know that our neighbors who do that work are junkies and creeps.
Because they are not.
I mentioned Down at the Docks to a few folks, who waved it off, saying that they "really never get down to the docks ... Hard work, those guys. Good for them."
I wish that it were.

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