Onyx reviews: Inner Passages by Carl Brookins
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2000
Michael Tanner, a modern-day Captain Ahab, spends the entire length of Inner Passages metaphorically hunting down a whale. In this case,
however, the whale in question is a large white yacht. Tanner, his wife, and a
mutual friend, on a recreational outing in the Inside Passage between Washington
and Alaska, encounter the phantom yacht in a dense fog. The yacht turns and
makes several passes at them before successfully colliding with and sinking the
smaller craft. Tanner's wife and their friend do not survive the encounter.
With an obsession that rivals that of Melville's hero, Tanner gives up virtually
everything to track down the offending boat, risking life, limb and career to do
so. He is driven by guilt at having insisted on the sailing outing on such a
poor day, but also by rage at the inexplicable, unprovoked attack.
Tanner finds that not many people genuinely believe his story of the killer ship
and he has few clues to go by other than three letters of the yacht's name and
the distinctive sound of her engines. His friends and coworkers watch him
self-destruct and then undergo a Phoenix-like resurrection as he wanders up and
down the west coast, hanging out in waterfront dives, trying to find anyone who
has a sliver of information about his nemesis.
"Inner Passages" is a first novel, and that shows in many ways. While
the linear plot is intriguing and engrossing, some of the book's execution is
amateurish. Released by a small Dallas publisher, the book would have been
served by a firmer editorial hand. Too often the viewpoint shifts randomly
within a given scene. As early as the first pages of the novel characters engage
in long expository passages intended to convey reams of information to the
reader. Even though Brookins has other characters poke fun at these long-winded
speeches, this seems like a feeble excuse to justify this shortcut.
Some of the dialog is stilted and awkward and there are several coincidental
occurrences that are too convenient for fiction. Characters forget important
details, only to conveniently remember them when they are needed most. Tanner's
repeated sabbaticals from his advertising company begin to stretch credibility
as he spends summers working at a marina in an attempt to gather information
about the yacht that he knows only as "GOL."
Brookins, however, knows his nautical details. His descriptions of the sounds
and straits of the Pacific Northwest are vivid and alive. Even when the
character motivation is a bit muddled as Tanner enters into a game of
cat-and-mouse with the killer ship (and Tanner switches between the roles of cat
and mouse from page to page) the sensory details are strong and realistic. The
fog banks are thick and palpable. A scene in which a yacht runs aground and then
tips over on the outgoing tide is particularly memorable and innovative.
The book is also filled with intricate details of handling recreational boats
under a variety of circumstances, some important to the plot and some merely
filling in the landscape with accurate - but not overwhelming - color.
Ultimately, though, the book is about the quest for the white whale. During this
search, Tanner learns how to live after the loss of his wife and gains a new
focus on his career and life in general during the two years that he spends
trying to track down the mysterious killer ship that came out of the fog.
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