On the waterfront
Observer takes an offbeat tack in portrait of New Bedford
DOWN AT THE DOCKS
By Rory Nugent
Pantheon, 288 pp., $24.95
The promise of New Bedford, today a virtual case study in urban decline, still burned long after the last whaling ship set sail around the turn of the 20th century. The city's potential lay in the seemingly limitless bounty of sea scallops, lobsters, and quahogs, along with a robust industrial sector that emerged in the mid-19th century, when investors began placing their money in factories as an alternative to fishing. As recently as the 1970s, the New Bedford needle trades produced "more than half the men's suits sold over the counter" in the United States.
So explains Rory Nugent in "Down at the Docks," his engrossing and in many ways unorthodox study of the life and times of a city, and particularly the character of its waterfront.
Rather than present a straightforward history of New Bedford, or even a memoir of his own experiences in this city where he lived for 17 years, Nugent delves into six subcultures, drawing forth two or three unfiltered voices from each. The book's opening scene takes place at the Harborside Cafe, where Sword, a fisherman in late middle age, banters with the server Fatima, a former beauty queen now in her late 30s who came to New Bedford as a child from the Portuguese isle of São Miguel. Tattoo ink covers Sword's body, including "a map of Vietnam running the full length of his spine and marked with a skull and crossbones in places where he saw action." Fatima takes pleasure in her own brand of showiness: The two-tone paint job on her new car matches her manicure from the Nails of Distinction salon.
In subsequent chapters we meet the handsome, 6-foot-5-inch Mako, who became captain of his first fishing boat at 23 and now at 46 "elicits playful looks from divorcées years younger than he"; Pink, an octogenarian who for years earned his living as a "facilitator," a kind of self-appointed sheriff of transactions both sanctioned and illicit on the waterfront, and an affiliate of the Patriarca mob family of Providence; and Hake, a survivor of several shipwrecks considered a "jinx" by superstitious peers. Then there is Pearl, a 50-something journeyman electrician and mob-connected jewelry dealer. Pearl is a lesbian who says "she'd expect to find 25 to 30 percent [of her former high school classmates] flying rainbow colors," a legacy of prolonged separation of the sexes in a fishing culture. The book's final chapter, in which boat owner Monk tries to engineer the "perfect wreck" of his aging vessel so that he can collect an insurance payout, embodies resignation itself.
Uniting these sketches is the strong sense that New Bedford won't emerge as a central player in the 21st-century digital economy, even though it remains "the largest commercial fishing port in America." The indie-mariner community dates its malaise to the early 1990s, when the efforts of "lab coats," "feds," and "greenies" resulted in restrictions on catches and days at sea, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with corporate rivals. Nor has New Bedford's industrial economy continued to flourish. Over several decades, factory jobs have been shifted to the nonunion South or abroad.
Throughout the book, Nugent interweaves in a decidedly nonlinear way the storylines that constitute New Bedford's extraordinary history. One involves the transitional year of 1806, when "a series of especially violent storms ripped up the bottom of Nantucket Sound and forced millions of tons of sand and muck down the harbor mouth," effectively ruining Nantucket's value as a port.
The nation's whaling center then moved to New Bedford, which would become the world's richest place from 1815 to 1855, according to Nugent. In the next century, two calamitous hurricanes would strike before the federal government intervened in 1962, funding construction of the largest dike in the Western Hemisphere. Residents felt reassured as a result, but consequences for the ecosystem along the shoreline have been dire.
The book's most scintillating subplots, however, lie at the margins. Take, for example, the story of Portuguese immigration to New Bedford from the Azores, Madeira, São Tomé, and Cape Verde, which began in the early 1800s, when Massachusetts whaling schooners would dock at the then-little-developed isles. By around 1970, some 30,000 New Bedfordites - just below a third of the city's population - could claim Portuguese islander descent.
A conceptual contrast runs the length of this book, between the prominence of New Bedford's historical milestones and a certain elusiveness associated with the maritime personalities Nugent meets. All the names in "Down at the Docks," it seems, have been changed to safeguard against their being prosecuted for drug smuggling, Mafia connections, insurance fraud, and other criminal activities.
Even the author, whose other books include a work of nonfiction set in the Congo and who, single-handedly, has sailed across the Atlantic several times, plays a part in this shadow play, offering only the coyest suggestions as to his relationships to the people with whom he interacts. Much of this narrative, it is further worth noting, appears to have been based on observations made about a decade ago.
In the end, most readers will agree that Nugent's approach gives the book a powerful immediacy, but they invariably will wonder what attracted this sensitive thinker to a world so visceral.
Jason Warshof is a writer living in Jamaica Plain.