New Bedford is an alien city a mere thirty-miles from where I sit, a place I really don’t know that well, a messy collection of triple-deckers, stone churches, abandoned textile mills and infinite sadness. New Bedford is sad because of its past greatness – it was arguably one of the wealthiest cities in the world in the middle of the 19th century. I expect most people think of New Bedford through Ishmael’s eyes; Jack Tar rolling down cobble-stoned streets past the Seaman’s Bethel to the Spouter Inn. Few see it as the drug-ridden, tired mess of a fishing port it is today, cut off from the sea by a ugly rampart of stone built to protect what’s left from another hurricane like the ones in 1938 and 1954 that nearly wiped the place off the map forever, ruined by Route 18, an ugly slash of highway some dumb politician pushed through to tie the docks to the interstate. Yes, there’s the Whaling Museum – it’s cute and kind of sad as it tries to revise the bloody history of what the city did to the world’s whale population — and there are parts of the town that ache with memories of past glories, when New Bedford men roamed the globe and fortunes were made on everything from oil to golf balls, rope to coke.
Rory Nugent wrote Down at the Docks
following nearly two decades living in New “Bej” It’s about eight chapters long, each a profile of a different character, all related to the waterfront in one way or another. From the Portuguese-American, former Miss Massachusetts (third runner-up) tending the dockside diner coffee pot, to the unluckiest fisherman, or Jonah, on the docks, the book is about the people – captains and crew, mobsters and fixers, bluebloods and dope addicts. This is not a book about commercial fishing, watch Most Dangerous Catch if you want to get off on guys killing themselves in orange Grundens. This is about fishermen trying to sink old boats for the insurance money, about captains pissed off at the scientists, madmen who snort coke and meth to stay awake during killer blizzards, not because they want to have a party.
This isn’t about my world or my people. I can point at a whaling captain ancestor, but in no way can I claim the kind of bond to New Bedford that Nugent describes in the gallery of washed-up, screwed over miscreants that inhabit Down at the Docks. This is a weird subculture that Kurlansky comes close to describing in his recent tome about Gloucester, The Last Fish Tale, but doesn’t because Nugent just flat out takes a novelist’s liberty and invents his characters into something more real than any diligent reporter could objectively describe. I’m sure he’ll take some heat for fictionalizing, but it doesn’t matter. The details are real. The speech patterns are dead on. This is southeastern Massachusetts long after the circus left town, a broken down, depressed, grey and brown place that got the stuffing kicked out of it by the Great Depression, roused itself for a little while in the 60s, and is now floating face down.
My only bone to pick with the book is one of the last chapters, about the Petticoat Society, where Nugent tries to tell the history of the Quaker whalers through the eyes of a society of women who hold the true power while their men are away at sea. The scrimshaw phallus story is heh-heh, humorous, and not the first time I’ve heard it told (the first being in Forbes FYI in the 90s).
How good of a writer? I’ll buy Nugent’s other stuff. This one was great. Problem with the damn Kindle version is I can’t walk it across the street and make my Cousin Peter, a true student of New Bedford, read it.