When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man

  • Nick Dybek
  • Riverhead Books
  • 320 pp.

A fishing town in the Pacific Northwest is prepared to take desperate measures to maintain its prosperity in this homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Reviewed by Tim Wendel

There must be something in the water in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For graduates of the University of Michigan have penned some superb yarns set in the Pacific Northwest in recent years.

Elwood Reid set the bar high with Midnight Sun and D.B. And now we have Nick Dybek, who has written When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man — an intriguing homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Of course, recasting Stevenson’s classic requires a new twist or two, and Dybek delivers a boatload in this engrossing, often haunting thriller.

The men of Loyalty Island, a fishing town on the Olympic Peninsula, head north to the Bering Sea every winter in pursuit of king crab. On the popular TV show “Deadliest Catch,” we’ve seen how competitive and important for a locale’s economic health this line of work can be. But when John Gaunt, who owns the Loyalty Island’s commercial fleet, dies and leaves his empire to his only son, Richard, the stakes rise in a hurry. Richard has little interest in the fishing life, and something has to be done about him if the town’s fleet is to head out again and Loyalty Island will continue to thrive. With that we’re plunged into a modern-day pirate world where “dead men tell no tales,” as true now as it was in Stevenson’s era.

Cal Bollings, the book’s narrator, is barely fifteen — still too young to head to sea with his father and his bottle-of-rum buddies. But young Cal is savvy enough to realize such men will go to great lengths, including murder, to preserve their livelihood. He and his friend Jamie are the only ones in Loyalty Island to befriend Richard Gaunt, and their actions will go a long way toward deciding if the town’s pirates will allow this rich man’s son to live or die.

Growing up in the Midwest, Dybek (the son of writer Stuart Dybek) could barely read a tide chart. He moved to Seattle to create the vivid world of his novel, specifically the fictional Loyalty Island. Dybek visited the small towns along the Pacific coast and Olympic Peninsula, basing his setting upon a combination of Port Angeles, Washington, and Newport, Oregon. And that’s one of the strengths of Captain Flint. Not only can we picture this place, but we also soon realize how desperate and to what lengths the good folk of Loyalty Island will go to assure that the crab fleet sails. Young Cal knows it as well as anybody. And it’s through his eyes that this tale of good and evil plays out.

So much of life in Loyalty Island is defined by what occurs in Alaska — a land of extremes thousands of miles away. Dybek told Granta magazine, which recently named him as a New Voice, that this disconnect leaves the town’s residents “reliant on their imaginations.”

When Cal’s father returns from a fishing voyage north, months away from home, he tries to explain how he’s as buffeted by imagination as anybody in Loyalty Island. “…when you’re out there all you think about is back here,” he tells young Cal, “and when you’re back here all you can think about is out there.”

In such a world, the lines between heroes and villains soon become blurred, especially for a teenage kid. That makes Cal a pretty indecisive protagonist, which slows down the last third of the novel a bit too much. Yet when our hero does ultimately decide which side he’s on, the choice is memorable.

“In children’s books, the villains are usually doomed while the heroes make it to the end,” Dybek said. “In Treasure Island, for example, the reader knows Jim Hawkins will survive because he’s telling the story, but there’s no such guarantee for John Silver. It’s Silver that you need to fear for.”

This ebb and flow between heroes and villains propels Captain Flint. For when the deck is stacked against us, when the wind is up and the cry comes from the crow’s nest, will we ultimately act as Young Jim or Long John Silver? That’s the dilemma Cal finds himself in and one that readers will toss about in their minds long after finishing this fine debut novel.

Tim Wendel is the author of nine books, novels and narrative nonfiction. His latest is Summer of ’68: The Season When Baseball and America Changed Forever (Da Capo).

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