Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95)
by Daniel Picker
Both the waters of Puget Sound and family figure prominently in Jim Lynch’s novel Before the Wind, as grown and nearly-grown children grapple with their parents to set their own independent courses. Lynch’s fictional family, the Johannssens, are a boat-building and sailboat-racing family. The family business revolves around a company that has faltered as its racing vessels have been surpassed by even more expensive high tech designs sought by the noveau riche.
Two of the Johannssen sons were named for famous sailors: Josh for Joshua Slocum, author of Sailing Alone Around the World, and Bernard for Bernard Moitessier, the legendary sailor who all but won the first single-handed, round-the-world yacht race in 1969 but inexplicably sailed on, embarking on circumnavigating the globe once again, thus foregoing not only the glory, but also the monetary award. The strength of Lynch’s novel lies in this same sort of indomitable spirit.
Josh, a boatyard mechanic and sailboat repairman and the narrator of the novel, has remained closest to his father and grandfather, the patriarchs of the family business, while Josh’s mother, a physics teacher, remains obsessed with the Navier-Stokes equations she hopes to solve. Her youngest, the preternatural and incandescent Ruby, holds the hope for family resurrection as she sails at an Olympic level, but she has her own ideas and will meet even greater challenges. Ruby is the most interesting and perplexing character in the novel, and Lynch evokes her so fully that she inspires pathos in the reader.
Josh is aware that the owners of boats in the boatyard where he works cannot always afford to maintain their vessels, and that these sailboats have become as close and as important as family members. In effect, some of the down–at–the-heels boat owners remain driven by the same irrational spirit which drives Josh’s father, Bobo Jr., and his grandfather, Grumps: a love of sailing. Before the Wind captures this love; this is not merely a book with a sailing backdrop, and the Johannssens are as far from haughty prep schoolers as a reader might find.
The father’s hope is to reunite the family, including the wayward and errant Bernard who sails through Steinbeck’s beloved Sea of Cortez far south of Olympia, Washington. While Bernard seems to have drawn the attention of government investigators, Bobo dreams of bringing the family together to compete in their own Joho 39 in the Swiftsure Race on Puget Sound.
Before the Wind is at its best when Lynch captures the excitement of sailing. The novel sails toward the climatic race where the family reunites:
“Eight knots!” Grumps cried, scanning the instruments. “Eight-point-three-knots upwind!”
. . . Prone on the bow, Ruby watched the slot between the sails and said absolutely nothing, which meant everything was perfect, the foils curved like raptor wings for maximum velocity. Even Mother looked excited, silver bangs blowing across her inquisitive eyes.
The camaraderie of this sailing family is analogous to that of Mack and the boys in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the paisonos in Tortilla Flat; those memorable characters, as do the Johannssens, live both on the page and on the fringe of society, seeking contentment, meaning, and livelihood. Steinbeck, in fact, gets alluded to more than once in this entertaining fiction, so the influence is evident—and earned.