Butcher’s debut novel tells the story of a commercial diver struggling with difficult co-workers.
You would think a man by the name of Jonah would never go to sea. Even if he had no superstition regarding his name, surely others around him would. Nevertheless, Jonah becomes an apprentice oil field diver—or “Tender,” as they’re known—doing maintenance work on the labyrinth of pipelines that crisscross the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Jonah gains a reputation for toughness and survival—valued qualities in his line of work—and manages to rise above his unfortunate name. Then one of the divers on his team—a man named Seed, who was recently released from the state penitentiary—takes his dispute with a crane operator too far; when the crew is sent to recover the body of a dead rigger, Seed hangs the corpse from the crane. This trespass against decency destroys the reputation of Jonah’s crew and makes them vulnerable to violent reprisals from other Louisiana riggers. “Do you know how easy it is ta kill a man offshore and make it look like an accident?” threatens one rigger who breaks into Jonah’s apartment. “I want you ta think a me when the crane operator crushes you under a load.” Jonah finds himself having to take more and more difficult jobs, surrounded by progressively more unfriendly crewmates. Meanwhile, his refusal to defend Seed’s actions makes the ex-con a particularly pernicious enemy. On top of it all, Jonah must face other timeless dangers of the sea: cold water, rough weather, and myriad creatures—including, of course, a whale.
Butcher’s measured prose deftly captures the grit and violence of Jonah’s world, both on deck and beneath the waves: “The ocean’s molten color poured into his helmet. It shone through his lens onto his face. It flooded into his eyes, filled his face and mind with concentrated blue until that’s all there was to know.” The author also makes repeated references to Jonah’s other literary antecedent, the similarly biblically named Ishmael, although this book is far more approachable than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, both in its narrative style and in its literary ambition. Jonah’s tale is essentially an adventure story, and the rigger vendettas, murderers, and snake-handlers that populate the pages of this book are more the stuff of pulp fiction than they are of reality. Even so, the world of offshore oil rigs is indeed a rugged one, and Butcher’s handling of it here will attract readers who might not have had any interest in the milieu before. There are a few moments when the narrative drifts lazily into cliché—“I don’t think it’s possible to really know what’s in a man’s heart,” muses an old hand named Porter in the novel’s frame narrative, “any more than it’s possible to know what’s hidden in the ocean”—but the story is entertaining enough for readers to forgive the author for such lapses.