New Maine Times Book Review: Hull Creek
By Jim Nichols.
Down East Books, 2011.
242 pages, $24.95.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
When Troy Hull dropped out of college ten years ago to come home and be a lobsterman, the fishing was good, there was plenty of money, and a fisherman's life in the coastal town of Pequot, Maine was pretty nice. Ten years later things have changed, and now for Troy life isn't so good after all.
HULL CREEK is author Jim Nichols's debut novel, a gritty, tightly-wrapped story about the changing Maine coast, where fishing villages are rapidly disappearing, replaced by expensive waterfront estates, where fishermen are displaced by retirees and wealthy outsiders, and where such drastic change results in conflict and tension.
Nichols lives in Warren, Maine, and is an award-winning author of short stories, including a collection titled "Slow Monkeys." This may be Nichols's first novel, but he writes like a veteran. The transition from short story writing to full length novels may seem easy, but it is not. The novel must sustain the plot, mood, and interest, allowing for greater depth that must also be convincing. Not an easy task for a writer. Nichols, however, has made the transition beautifully, clearly understanding what is needed and then delivering an entertaining and suspenseful story.
Troy Hull is a third generation lobsterman, one of just two fishermen remaining in Pequot (near Rockland and Owl's Head). His family has owned waterfront property in Pequot for decades, prime land known as Hull Creek. Pequot has become gentrified over the years, with outsiders buying up the waterfront for big vacation homes and cute boutiques, pricing fishermen off their land and out of the water. And some local folks don't like that at all.
Troy has always worked hard, but now he is in big financial trouble. "I thought it was pretty amazing how close to the edge you could be without knowing it. A couple of years ago I'd had a new boat, a happy wife, money in my pocket." Now Troy has an old boat, no wife, no money, and a mortgage he can't pay.
The rich fat cats at the bank want Troy's land for development and they are determined to get it. Before he knows it Troy is being set up for a default and foreclosure, forcing him to take some desperate and illegal risks to save the family property and his way of life. And he knows this will probably end up badly for him. But what else can he do?
Troy and his childhood pal, Bill Polky, do a little small-time smuggling on Troy's boat, but when the stakes go up, so do the risks, and suddenly Troy and Polky are in way over their heads. And they wonder how the Marine Patrol always seems to know where they are and what they're doing. Is somebody tipping off the cops every time they go out to sea? Why would somebody do that?
People Troy thought were his friends turn out to be something quite different, so he plans a few schemes himself to sort out the good guys from the bad, and he is quite surprised at the results.
This is a visceral and gripping tale of suspense and retribution, coarse and profane, wildly funny in parts and grimly sobering in others. Nichols is a superb storyteller, vividly revealing the social and economic divisions between locals and outsiders (colorfully referred to as "suits" and "swanks"), and the good and bad decisions they both make, with sharply defined characters, snappy dialogue, and an exciting, satisfying conclusion that really isn't a happy ending at all.
For other outstanding fiction about fishermen and coastal Maine, see THE GHOST TRAP by K. Stephens (2009) and THE WOODEN NICKEL by William Carpenter (2003).