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Mon July 16, 2007
Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal
In this blog, Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal, Thomson, as Gus, a fictional worker in an Oakland, California cat food cannery, tells of his adventures. Gus has lost his wife, young son, and right arm to a crazed whale and vows revenge.
By Don Noble
AUDIO TO COME SOON. Sometimes the story of how a book gets written just cries out to be told. Keith Thomson had been working in California for several years as a screenwriter for Tri-Star, Paramount, and Disney, and decided he wanted to write fiction. He signed up for a creative writing course at Stanford, but, luckily, came down with Hepatitis A which he got from eating a bad burrito. Forced to spend two months in bed, Thomson read some fifty books on pirates, ships' rigging, meteorology, the geography of the Caribbean, etc., and produced The Pirates of Pensacola (2004). This novel has as its protagonist a nerdy accountant, Morgan Cooke, who gets caught up in the ongoing family feud between the Cook and Hood families.
Thomson then decided to move to his wife's home town, Birmingham, Alabama, to write, and there a second child was born, leaving Thomson little time to write. So, in his hour a day of writing time Thomson began a blog.
In this blog, Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal, Thomson, as Gus, a fictional worker in an Oakland, California cat food cannery, tells of his adventures. Gus has lost his wife, young son, and right arm to a crazed whale and vows revenge. From his wife's insurance, he receives enough cash to buy from Indians in the state of Washington a license to kill one whale?the one that destroyed his family.
Thomson wrote a short chapter each day, put it out on the web as a blog, and paid attention to the responses. The novel progressed. Gus moves to the Gulf. He gets a boat, some harpoons, and then gathers a bizarre crew to help him. He finds a giant, powerful, ferocious West Indian named Flarq. He also recruits an ex-Viet Cong named Duq, ostensibly as cook. Duq had been a top interrogator for the Viet Cong. "After the war, his knowledge of the tools of the interrogation trade?knives, cleavers, boiling water and oils?got him a job in a slaughterhouse in Hanoi." When we meet Duq he is experiencing "a freakish amount of joy" from boiling a live lobster.
Also on board are a giant named Thesaurus who prays to a wide array of gods, a deckhand named Moses, a crazed alcoholic who will drink anything, and Stupid George. How stupid is Stupid George, you may ask? Very very is the answer. Is there a political dimension to any of this? It's hard to say.
In an aside, Gus remarks that responders to the blog have asked, "Is the whale white?" He answers, "I don't get it. Is 'white whale' some kind of literary reference?" Throughout the novel, Thomson/Gus show no sign whatever of being aware of Moby Dick, but of course that is part of the fun.
And this novel is a lot of fun. Gus and his crew are captured by pirates, nearly killed, and escape. They are chased by the Tortolan Navy, and they escape. They sail into Bill's Triangle, a patch of ocean as dangerous as the Bermuda Triangle.
It's not all horrors, though, as Gus meets and falls in love with the beautiful Sybil of the Island of Conch. Gus wins Sybil. Gus loses Sybil, etc. This is not a realistic novel. This is a fun novel. Each little chapter is like a chocolate-covered peanut. Gus and his gang race all over the Caribbean chasing the whale, whose name, mildly obscene, I cannot say here, but it is a clear if unacknowledged reference to Melville's whale.
At the end of each chapter is a faux scrimshaw, an amusing drawing, for those who prefer their novels illustrated. All the drawings are also done by Thomson, who used to be an editorial cartoonist for the New Haven Register and New York Newsday.
There is nothing serious about this novel, including the wildly politically incorrect project of killing a whale. Will Gus kill the whale? You know he won't, but the mystery of why the whale ate his family and his arm must be solved. Will Gus end up with the beautiful princess, now Queen Sybil, and become King of Conch? Are you kidding? Take this one to the beach.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.