The Sinking of the Angie Piper
By Chris Riley; Coffeetown Press; 224 pages; $14.95
My partner and I read Chris Riley's "The Sinking of the Angie Piper" at the same time. We even fought over it: "It's my turn. No, it's not. Yes, it is."
We read to compile mistakes, all the times Riley got details about Alaska and the crab fishing industry wrong, all of the instances where he encountered grizzly bears (two, by page 40), all of the times he used Alaska as an adjective or descriptive word (and trust me, there were so many that I began to wonder if the book could work as a drinking game).
But then something unexpected happened: We both got sucked down inside the story.
Written from the first-person point of view, the book follows Ed, a 20-something Anchorage-raised crab fisherman slated to work the season aboard the Angie Piper, and he's brought along his good friend Danny to act as the ship's greenhorn.
Things go wrong
Danny has Down syndrome, and Ed spends much time agonizing over why he never stepped in when Danny was bullied and teased as a child, or why he doesn't step in now, either.
The rest of Angie Piper's crew accepts Danny for what he is: a good-natured and hard worker who isn't afraid of the dreariest and dullest of tasks.
Except for Dave, the ship's engineer, who makes it clear from the beginning that he believes Danny will bring bad luck to the crew.
And things do go wrong, though through no fault of Danny's. Some of the crab pots are stolen, Danny is almost crushed by a pot swinging from the sway and later, a "rogue" wave hits the boat, causing damage that eventually leads to the sinking.
And here, right when it should pick up, the book begins to lag under the weight of almost 50 pages of crisis intermingled with more crisis. Too much happens without enough forward movement, and while there's much description, it's often of the wrong kind: Do we really need a play by play of how the cables are cut to free the crab pots?
Riley, a special education teacher who lives near Sacramento, California, and worked for two summers at a salmon processing plant near Naknet back in the 1990s, is at his best when he zeroes in on character interactions. He has a knack for bringing small situations to life and showing hidden insecurities and weaknesses behind his characters' masks.
Yet too often he ignores this instinct and adopts a type of bravado voice that intrudes upon the story.
He opens the book with a scene in a Kodiak bar, which he describes as "one of the roughest places on earth."
Such hyperbole plays a large part in the book's downfall, especially in the first few chapters. It's almost as if Riley tries too hard to capture his perception of the rough Alaska flavor, the tough Alaska lifestyle. The second chapter provides an example:
Alaska is a bitch. She is rotten and spoiled, vindictive, harsh in every sense of the word, and quite eager to probe her ruthlessness as often as she can. She is a spiteful bitch, who regards human life as mere fodder for her insatiable hunger…. The belief that one day this ferocious beast of unrelenting wilderness and grim seas will become a slave to the will of man is absolutely folly.
It's a shame that Riley overplayed and over-dramatized the dangers of both Alaska and the fishing industry without balancing the positives. I couldn't help imagining what this book could have been had he dragged us through the belly of the fishing world and left us gasping from both the beauty and the fierceness of it all.
Not a literary read
Yet, in a sense, the story could and does work, once readers tuck away their fact-o-meters and simply enjoy "Angie Piper" for what it is: a somewhat sensationalized adventure story with underlying heart.
And while the ending might feel unrealistic, especially the detail about jumping jacks, it nevertheless feels if not earned, at least desired. And while I don't want to give anything away, I will say that I was briefly reminded of that scene from the 1984 film "The Killing Fields" where actors Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor run toward each other.
And yes, I got a bit teary-eyed.
Listen, this isn't a literary read. It's not a book that always accurately portrays Alaska or Alaska crab fishing. It's a book that poses as an adventure story but is really about acceptance, forgiveness and, ultimately, love.
It is, simply, a book about a friendship between two men, one of whom has Down syndrome. And think of it: How often does a special needs guy get to be the hero of a story?
That alone makes it an adventure novel worth noting.
Cinthia Ritchie is an Anchorage freelance writer and author of "Dolls Behaving Badly."