Book review: A debut novel transports readers into the madness of Bristol Bay fishing

“The North Line”

By Matt Riordan; Hyperion Avenue, 2024; 313 pages; $27.99.

In the first pages of this novel about a greenhorn’s Bristol Bay fishing season, the young man pushes a skiff off the beach and ends up in the water himself. He’s warned by his crewmates that he “broke the cardinal rule. You don’t ever go in the water.” Like the narrative principle known as “Chekhov’s gun,” this loaded gun returns at the end of the novel in a dramatic fashion, but not as a reader might have imagined.

Adam, a college student at a prestigious East Coast college has lost his lacrosse-based scholarship for a drug offense and, with a connection from a fellow student, arrives in Alaska with a plan to earn enough fishing money to pay his senior-year tuition and then get on with his life. As a greenhorn, he doesn’t get his pick of boat or skipper but accepts what’s offered — with all the low-on-the-totem-pole duties that go with the job. Once, when he’s ordered to do something both unethical and illegal, he’s told, “I don’t tell you to do something because I want to discuss it. This isn’t a democracy.”

First, on a wreck of a gillnet boat, Adam fishes Togiak herring with two characters very unlike the kind of people he’s known in his conventional life and elite school; then he fishes salmon with a cruel and unscrupulous skipper. The salmon season is complicated by a fishermen’s strike for higher prices. (The book is set in 1991, when an actual strike lasted for 10 days.)

Author Matt Riordan, now a retired lawyer living in Australia, spent his early-adult years fishing in Alaska, and that experience suffuses his debut novel with true-to-life details of the place, time, and conditions of the particular fisheries. The storyline is absolutely compelling, but the plot is not the point here. Adam is a complicated young man who’s not sure who he is or wants to be; he’s already made some bad choices and continues to be tested. Readers will sympathize with him one minute and want to shake sense into him in the next.

At college, “he had never had anything particular in mind. Denby (the college) offered a narrow selection of possible lives, all of them comfortable but dull, a menu of more or less interchangeable ways to spend life in an office. . . Until now, he hadn’t run across anything he actually wanted.” Instead of being “the protagonist in his own private ‘Donkey Kong,’ dodging seamless globes of doom that hurled his way more or less at random,” or responding to stimuli like “an amoeba in a petri dish when faced with a dose of Clorox from an eyedropper ... He might really choose something else.” Wet, exhausted, hungry, belittled and abused, with a damaged thumb, Adam can’t keep from smiling.


The other characters are equally complicated — well beyond any stereotypes of “fishermen.” They eat Spam straight out of cans. They tell gruesome or humorous stories with a lot of what is referred to as “adult language.” They’re well-skilled in all the ways that keep boats afloat and gear fishing and have sharp intellects. Their impressive knowledge of the world is often crudely expressed and layered with cynical or fantastical opinion. The talk among them is smart, colorful, and entertaining. Each is distinctly his own man. (Very few women appear, and those who do are viewed misogynistically by the men.)

One of Adam’s crewmates explains evolution to him: “Your ancestors, they were exceptionally good at this kind of thing. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have survived ... Just like the sea lions and the bears and everything else around here. A hundred years or so in offices and bellying up to the salad bar at the (expletive) Applebee’s isn’t going to wipe clean eons of evolution. This, my friend, is one of the last jobs anywhere in the world where we get to do what we were bred to do.”

Bristol Bay fishing is a culture unto itself, with its own language and customs. Riordan makes it understandable to any reader as Adam’s crewmates teach him how to operate the boat and gear, and to survive. “Two mugs (of coffee) into the day and Adam’s molars felt like they had been fitted with stockings of Vaseline.” When he mentions the taste, he’s told that years back someone had accidentally pumped diesel into the freshwater tank. “You get used to it.” When things go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong. By season’s end, Adam experiences a boat fire, clogged pumps and flooding, broken hydraulics, violence, and injuries.

Riordan is a superb storyteller, and “The North Line” is an all-engrossing, never-dull depiction of Alaska’s “wild west” and those drawn to it. Sentence by sentence, Riordan’s dazzling language will transport readers into a world both challenging and packed with beauty and possibility. On Adam’s first day, he observes his surroundings: “Just a few yards in from the beach, mountains rose from the tundra, steep stretches of black rock that poked through patchy snow and then launched into sheer cliffs that towered over the bay. Adam followed their rise until they disappeared into a white fog. Whatever it was that shoved the universe around, here it was less hidden, closer to the surface.” By the end, that landscape has become his own.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."