An opioid addict–turned–apprentice boat builder tries to find himself on the Northern California coast.
We meet 27-year-old “digital refugee” Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg at a low point in his life: After a concussion led to an opioid addiction, then rehab, he has moved to Talinas, a town on the Northern California coast, where he hopes to establish “a sober life”—instead he’s breaking into houses for drugs. But within pages, Berg cleans himself up—at least a little. He gets a job, manages to wean himself temporarily off pills, and then apprentices himself to Alejandro Vega, a boat builder who tells him things like “stop thinking about the result. Stop wanting [the work] to be over right away and I promise everything will go better.” Alejandro is “a genius,” his mind “borderless and kinetic,” and under his influence Berg learns not just to work with wood, but to “get outside of himself.” But will Alejandro’s healing influence be enough to combat the lurking urges of addiction? Gumbiner’s debut is an underachieving redemption tale, and its failures are familiar to that particular genus of didactic literature—namely: The difficulties from which the characters need redeeming feel like excuses for the author to show us how exactly redemption can be had. Gumbiner could have sidestepped this with detail, by diving deeply into his human subjects—but his novel, like its characters, aspires toward simplicity rather than complexity. The result is that everything—the problem, the solutions, the quirky Northern California vibe, even the potentially fascinating fact that Berg robbed Alejandro’s house before later becoming his apprentice—feels like a plot device, and thus unconvincing, one-dimensional, bland. There is the occasional arresting line; for example, the skin on an addict’s face looks like it has been “stretched tight and then stapled across his jawline.” But the book is mostly composed of apathetic sentences (a supporting character’s storytelling is “disjointed and difficult to follow, like an avant-garde novel”), vapid dialogue (“ ‘What’s up, Berg?…’ ‘Hi Kenneth…do you remember my girlfriend, Nell?’ ‘Hi,’ Nell said. ‘Oh hi,” Kenneth said”), and clichéd profundity (“the problem was he didn’t know what he wanted”).
An unfortunately bland sketch of addiction, millennial listlessness, and the redemptive quality of craftsmanship with some Northern California flare.