- - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BEFORE THE WIND

By Jim Lynch

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages

 

The hearts of sailing enthusiasts will melt as they read of “the spangled bliss” of a sunset cruise in the third line of “Before the Wind.” A few lines later they will be ruefully amused but nodding their heads in agreement with the thought that “Sailboats attract the loons and geniuses … the romantics whose boats represent some outlaw image of themselves.” They’ll be equally charmed by the allusions to the suckers “who pay more in moorage and repairs than their boat is worth” and racers who “blow thousands to make their boats go half a smidge faster.” In short aficionados will be immediately hooked, and pretty soon so will anyone impervious to the call of the sea because this novel, Jim Lynch’s third, is a brilliantly crafted family story that moves with the speed and elegance of one of the racing boats it so lovingly describes.

Narrator Josh Johannssen knows all about boats — and about those sun-spangled evenings and deluded owners — because he is from a sailing family. Grandfather Bobo Johannssen designed and built boats, notably the Joho 39, which was “cheetah fast.” His father, another Bobo, was an Olympic sailing medalist, so now he gets away with being a lout, a cheater and a cheapskate. He runs the family boat-building business, but it isn’t doing quite so well any more. Mom is a high-school physics teacher, immune to the sailing bug but in thrall to the science that explains its mechanics. The three kids, Bernard, Josh and Ruby, grew up racing sailboats. Regardless of water and weather conditions, the two Bobos set up races for them every weekend, yelling instructions and abuse to train them for competition. The youngest, Ruby is the star: an eerily instinctive sailor who can find a wind where seemingly none exists.

Though Josh admits to being “nuts” about sailing, he is the least daring of the siblings on water. On land he is a whizz at repairing things. Ruby describes him as “the one who thinks he can fix whatever’s broken even though he knows it’ll just break again.” Now in his early 30s, he runs his own boatyard, mending boats while counseling their smitten owners. So when Bobo gets his hands on an old Joho 39, he wants Josh to fix it so the family can enter and win the Swiftsure race. Wary of Bobo’s tricksiness, Josh resists until he’s assured, “Your sister’s definitely in … completely her idea.”

Ruby had long ago abandoned sailing to do relief work in Africa. Bernard, too, has decamped to distant outposts from where he can battle “American hypocrisies and ocean polluters.” Josh, the easier middle child, has stayed closer to home in the Pacific Northwest, but refuses to join the family business. Clearly, all is not well with the Johannssens because the Bobos’ sailing mania has used up all the oxygen, and the younger generation has had to remove itself to breathe. So while “Before the Wind” is indeed about sailing and is rich with description of outfoxing wind, weather and opponents to win, it is also about the price exacted by the idolization of a sport — or indeed any excusive focus on a hobby or a job. And it’s about the talented and brilliant people who cannot respond to those around them unless they share the same obsession.

Jim Lynch handles his complex material with enormous skill, opening his novel like a time-lapse film. That first evocation of the sailing life quickly morphs into a parade of Johannssens and then into a series of descriptions of their past exploits. Each one jumps brilliantly from the page, with Bobo Jr. as a prize bully and his wife often sidelined but always her own quixotic person. Bernard and Ruby remain somewhat mysterious until relatively late the book, but when they return for the race they jump off the page with the charismatic energy that has always put Josh in their shade. The sharpness of this characterization is evident also in the descriptions of sailing and the weather. Indeed the two aspects of this novel — the sailing yarn and the family history — are seamless. The Johannssen’s lives are a kind of tussle with themselves and their situations that mimics the sailor’s tussle with the elements.

Early in “Before the Wind” Josh thinks about the language of boats, the special vocabulary for sails, boat parts, instructions and directions used by sailors on the smallest dinghy to the most gigantic ship. Sailing “before the wind” means letting the wind push you through the water from behind, but Josh says it strikes him “as a phrase from a Creation Story or the first three words of an ominous fable.” This novel has something of both forms, and also something of the sailor’s yarn and much of the family epic. It’s an exhilarating read.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.


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