WOODEN BOATS by Michael Ruhlman


In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard
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Ruhlman's (The Soul of a Chef, not reviewed) promising story of attending the construction of two sublime wooden boats falls short in so many areas that it feels woefully out of plumb.

Ruhlman has all the ingredients for a great tale: an ancient and honored craft perpetuated by a company of rascally artisans, a slew of absorbing satellite stories to broaden and deepen the character of both boats and boat-builders, and a construction process that has an intuitive, organic sense to it. The Martha's Vineyard boatyard of Gannon and Benjamin, for whom it is wood or the highway, is the setting for this chronicle of building a 60-foot schooner for an entrepreneur and a 32-foot powerboat for the singer Jonathan Edwards. Much of the spirit of the Gannon and Benjamin shop comes through here—the dedication, the vision. There are generously painted portraits of the boat workers, and there are terrific sections on gathering silverballi and angelique in the Suriname rainforest. But Ruhlman loves the sound of his voice too much, and his imagery charges about unreined: in one breath he tells readers that the victims of being boatstruck show “no easily discernable signs of the illness,” then “you can see it.” Or that artisinal wooden boat building is “a long study of a five-thousand-year-old practice” then an act of the “collective unconscious,” and we're not talking about the play of opposing forces. He also comes up with nonsensical metaphors: “Ross [Gannon] collects heavy antique machinery the way other people collect Faberge eggs”: Does this mean only on rare occasions? But perhaps the weakest part of the book is that Ruhlman is not particularly able in describing woodworking technique. Visualizing the boat-building process is critical to sustaining the book's atmosphere, and it simply never gathers in the mind's eye.

Approached as a salvage operation, there are numerous worthy features in this book, but there are too many gaps in planking for it to float on its own.

Pub Date: May 7th, 2001
ISBN: 0-670-88812-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2001


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