- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

By Rory Nugent
Pantheon Books, $24.95, 304 pages

By David Finney
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 276 pages

New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard, the city and island famous for their maritime traditions, lie 15 miles apart as the gull flies over Massachusetts waters, an hour’s ride on a fast ferry. Yet they could be on different planets, to tell from these two engaging and diametric volumes that weave history and speculation, reveal cravens and heroes, offer low comedy and high and resonate literate folklore.

Call that island a summer playground given over to serious games come fall; and that city a mausoleum of wealth, muscle and passion where the laughs are scattered and subtle or dark. Take traditional weather forecasting. “People would watch a pond — like for signs of bubbles and scum, because low-pressure systems release all sorts of crap from the bottom. … But storms, my [goodness], they bring the worst to the surface. No wonder they’re called depressions.” Or take the diner waitress whose day of glory came in a Miss Teen Massachusetts Pageant 30 years back. “She placed fourth, becoming, as she says, a near … Miss. For months afterwards, she prayed to her patron saint to make the top three girls pregnant or dead.”

Mr. Nugent’s homage to his adoptive home port, a moving and desperate book, is at once a chronicle, ramble, reminiscence, expose, epitaph and screed. “Down at the Docks” could only have been written by a lover who lived there, a muscled stylist and visionary of a triumphant sadness. As the book has many faces, New Bedford has no fewer: fishing village, whaling capital, El Dorado, textile center, harbor of America’s biggest fishing fleet, has-been, shambles, ghost town in the making.

Profiling people with names like Pink, Mako and Fatima, Mr. Nugent animates a declining city that is bipolar, its fortunes parabolic. The man with the unlikely name, a dockside deal maker and go-to guy for any kind of fix, was nonplussed: “Pink thinks it’s amazing that this city’s story has always been … high to low, riches to rags.”

A fishing town from the start, New Bedford fared, risked and prospered. In 1791, it was a New Bedford bark that rounded Cape Horn to discover the rich Pacific whaling grounds. For half of the next century, it was the richest city on the planet as it handled half the world’s oil supply — when lamps were lit and machines lubricated with oil from dead whales. By the time petroleum came into fashion, New Bedford had become a textile capital whose largest mill employed 2,000 workers at 3,000 looms to produce 25 million yards of cotton cloth a year. Today, high schools here see 40 percent of their kids drop out and half the girls become single mothers before their junior proms. One in five are on the dole and “the one place busier than the unemployment office is the women’s shelter.”

Accepting the several forms of poverty and squalor as facts of life, Mr. Nugent celebrates the particular integrity of seamen. “Handshakes built the docks and for Pink they remain the only currency worth a [darn]. … Mako’s faith in his boat and the sea comes out of the tradition and religion he was born into … the harder you work, the bigger your piece of the pie. … Thursday is slowest, [with] many fishermen following the Norse tradition never to launch a boat or depart on a long voyage on the day dedicated to Thor, god of wind and war.”

Cheering their throwback ways, Mr. Nugent writes “For Mako and other fishermen his age … the contract they signed as teens was broken the day Washington dispatched the sheriff to manage the fishery and establish law and order. … To him, a deal’s a deal.” What infuriates him “is how the feds, the greenies and the lab coats twisted themselves into heroes, champions of the ocean and protectors of the future, by demonizing fishermen.” The author demonizes authorities and non-fishermen, blames quotas and lawyers for the decline in catches, and the city’s agonies on everybody but the fishermen.

His screaming eulogy gets its power from its passion, that recognizes the weirdness of this dying city, a place of deep loyalties and multiple marriages, where outlaws outnumber in-laws, and where “an experienced crew can move upwards of 30 tons [of pot] on a single moonless night.” (There’s private enterprise for you, virtually immune to federal regulation.)

Mr. Nugent describes the hurricanes that have devastated the port so vividly that this reader ducked for shelter, and he revels in the ribaldry and oddities of New Bedford history. For one, he resurrects the Petticoat Society, an extraordinary distaff organization that ran the town a century before women got the vote. First on Nantucket, then more markedly here, women took over local business and government, because the menfolk were off chasing whales for years at a stretch, and evidently because the women were smarter. Nobody seems to have regretted the absence of city fathers, so spectacularly successful were these city mothers, generations of them.

A working journalist who’d rather be a fisherman, David Finney answers a siren’s call each September to reach Martha’s Vineyard, the summer isle best known as romper room for the rich and famous. In early autumn, with the bright and beautiful departed, thankfully, it becomes the haunt of Mr. Finney and his tribe who hunt fish with a dedication that might make Ahab seasick. Theirs is the world of the open beach, the crashing (or whispering) surf, the slimy cockpits of small boats rigged for serious work.

This motley mob converges for the annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby in a pilgrimage as devout as a certain ancient band of travelers’ trek to Canterbury. Finney tells the tale as Chaucer did, introducing a rich and diverse cast of characters serially, each of them with a tale to tell, a tortured soul to salve with saltwater, and the mission to find a grail at the end of the quest (or of the monofilament), namely the biggest fish.

This marine marathon has been held every September since 1946, though inevitably the rules have changed. The storied striped bass (aka rockfish in Chesapeake country) was the first and only quarry until it was almost exterminated before a strict ban allowed the noble species to recover. The Derby expanded so that bluefish, bonito and albacore were also taken, weighed and measured against each other in a welter of categories such as the biggest on a given day and the inevitable “grand slam” involving all four species. Still, the grandest prize goes to him (or her) who lands the biggest monster of a striper approaching 60 pounds.

Encountering oddballs and zealots, natives and annual migrants, naming some names while respecting the anonymity (and secret fishing spots) of others, Mr. Finney celebrates the essential creed of the dedicated fisherman: “To know how to catch fish consistently — not just to chance upon them by dumb luck — was to have some rare knowledge, some special understanding of what lay hidden under the waves, and there was currency in that.” In sum, as this fish story proves, fishing ain’t all lies, bluster and luck.

Philip Kopper writes about history and culture.

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