Alexi Zentner's 'The Lobster Kings'

As a kid growing up in Maine, there came a day early on in the summer each year when the couch on our back porch beckoned just so, and I’d stretch out to read. At last, it was warm enough to sit outside—a triumph after having survived the winter. The laziness the couch invited was so luxurious; I forgot how arduous reading normally felt. I was a slow reader (still am), but something about that long-anticipated shock of Vitamin D must have fueled me: on this day I spontaneously became a speed reader. By noon I would have made it a third of the way through my book, and by then I knew I wasn’t going anywhere until it was done. By sundown I’d have licked it cover-to-cover, heralding in the season ahead of languorous summer reading.

To my delight, this happened all over again when I picked up Alexi Zentner’s new novel The Lobster Kings. From my loveseat in Brooklyn, I was immediately transported to Loosewood Island off Maine where we meet Cordelia Kings as she is sitting on the dock at night, chased out of her house by a soupy heat. Off in the distance, thunder and lightening signal an impending storm. The Kings family has been fishing the waters off Loosewood Island for some three hundred years, going back to Cordelia’s ancestor Brumfitt Kings, who it is said only sailed halfway to the Island from Ireland, for giant lobsters paved a path for him to walk—as he did along their backs—the rest of the way. In every part of his being, Brumfitt was a man of the sea. He lived just as much to lobster the waters as he did to paint them, and Cordelia, like her daddy before her, has inherited the legacy of his life’s work. As they carry on the tradition of the Kings in their respective boats, the Queen Jane and the Kings’ Ransom, they navigate territory that is rife with modern problems—namely a drug trade that has infected the mainland and made for greedy lobstermen.

Immediately, the tension that works so well throughout the novel is established: just like the waxing and waning of the tides that dictate life on the water, Zentner teases out a back and forth in the narrative that makes for an endlessly salacious read. “Daddy likes to say that you can find both the history and the future of the Kings family in Brumfitt’s paintings. You just have to know where to look,” he writes at one point. In one chapter we meditate on the meaning of the myths painted by Brumfitt; in the next, we see the present day Kings family risk, grip and escalate to unpredictable extremes to hold onto the territory that is rightly theirs. As they fight—against the ruthless lobstermen from James Harbor, the weather, physical limitations—Shakespeare’s adage, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” resonates in the action on every page. No sooner is one obstacle dealt with than the next threat seems just around the edge of the island.

Plagued by a curse, the Kings know all too well that the sea will give their family life, but it will just as easily take it away. By the time she is lobstering herself, Cordelia has already weathered the loss of kin, and understands all too well just how fragile life is. Still, she makes no qualms about taking on the demanding work at hand. She couldn’t not do it. Despite her ability, she remains defensive about the fact that she’s a woman following in her father’s footsteps. Lobstering is a relationship between a captain and the sea, but Zentner guides the reader through Cordelia’s transformation from ruthless independence to being part of a community. At turns, she is just as tough as the men on the island; at others, we see her softer side as she succumbs to a love interest that will ultimately support her enough to wear the Kings’ crown herself . Like any love interest, the one Zentner constructs offers a welcome shelter from the storm.

A King Lear adaptation to great affect, The Lobster Kings is a family drama, replete with jealous sisters, a strong (though aging) father figure, ancestral legacy, and the unknown future. Sure you could make the drive up to Maine from the city, or you could just flop out on your favorite recliner for summer reading, and let Zentner take you along for the journey.

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One comment

  1. E.N. Jones

    THE LOBSTER KINGS Borrows Heavily from THE FISHER KING by Hayley Kelsey
    Alexi Zentner’s second novel (May 27), set on fictional Loosewood Island straddling Maine and Canada, revolves around a 300-year-old lobsterman’s family named Kings: Father Woody, eldest daughter Cordelia, and sisters Rena and Carly. Descendants of painter Brumfitt, who, lore has it, married a mermaid, they inherit a family curse that claims the lives of each generation’s first-born son as when nine-year-old Scotty is swept overboard. Guilty over her rivalry with Scotty, Cordelia resolves to fill his shoes as captain and lobsterman. She takes charge when nearby James Harbor lobstermen start poaching the Kings’s waters and drug smuggling to addict the island’s inhabitants. Tough Woody fights back, but at 57 and ill, he only has so much fight left, so Cordelia steps in to avenge the family territory, cutting the enemy’s lobster traplines and discovering a dismembered corpse, which culminates in a piratical shoot-out.
    The author reprises the strongly mythic quality of his first novel in the descriptions of ancestor Brumfitt’s paintings that are interspersed with present-day chapters. But the use of myth here is heavy-handed, clunky, and fails to add dimension to the characters’ history or the plot or to resonate in any way. Allusions to Cordelia’s dalliance with an African-American and to Carly’s lesbian partner are painfully obvious set points designed to give the novel “Politically Correctness.”
    The novel reflects a paucity of imagination and felt emotion at every turn: the characters lack complexity and their relationships are based on minor squabbles, which only further erodes any dimensionality. If their fishing rights (hence, livelihoods) are being encroached on, they seem petty squabbling over jewelry instead of strategizing how to get rid of vandals and meth dealers.
    The prose is not the least bit evocative, and there’s so little description woven into the scenes that they “float.” Coupled with a lack of resonant detail, they never come alive for the reader. Because of the dichotomy between the first-person narrator’s educated voice and the narrative voice, which makes liberal use of slang and comes across as folksy but not intimate, Cordelia’s voice is simply not believable.
    Presumably the plot revolves around the threats of off-islanders encroaching on island waters and dealing meth, but the author never renders a scene that makes them real to the reader, nor does he provide any evidence that they are, in fact, threats, such as by lost revenue or drug-addled adolescents, so nothing is actually at stake in the novel.
    The author fails to lay the groundwork for or build to crisis events and instead springs them on the reader so they occur out of a vacuum, then handily dispenses with them in a truncated narrative so they don’t advance the plot, build suspense, or add character depth. The scenes are violent, but not climactic. One incident merely follows another with no build-up to them, no rendering of conflict, and no repercussions from them. As a result, the pacing is disjointed and jerky at best. The absence of any attention to craft permeates every aspect: plot creation, character development, theme interweaving, prose style, attention to revealing detail, etc. At each opportunity, the author robs the reader of the chance to actually experience the story and characters, and dictates to his readers instead.
    The author makes a play for “Literary Greatness” by tying the novel to KING LEAR, but it falls flat largely because his characters and plot are so wide of the Lear theme. Instead, the novel seems to borrow heavily from THE FISHER KING, by Hayley Kelsey, published in 2011. In fact, the similarities, both large and small, are striking: The title, family surname, plot points, characters, sibling rivalry, character development, setting, theme, and literary allusions.
    But the richly imagined THE FISHER KING is the infinitely better novel. Not only does it ambitiously address such big themes as overfishing in an era of global trade, who’s responsible for a commons in a free market economy, the competing interests of stewardship v. inheritance, and what connotes possession by posing such questions as who “owns” the sea: the public or watermen who work it and know it best? But the author makes the political achingly personal in the deeply felt and generously evoked very real lives of characters trapped by circumstances (sometimes of their own making) as pressure from a punishing summer drought mounts on an island community and a family to pit brother against brother, and father against son while the fate of the precarious watershed waits. The Fisher King
    In compliance with FTC Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, the reviewer received an ARC free from the publisher unconditionally based on positive or negative review. The opinions expressed are his own.

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