Down at the Docks

Rory Nugent?s earlier, gloriously entertaining travel books, Search for the Pink-Headed Duck and Drums Along the Congo, took him to India and West Africa, respectively. Now Down at the Docks finds Nugent back where countless sea journeys have begun, in the port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Nugent lived in New Bedford for 17 years, long enough to be accepted, and this is his zany elegy for a tough town and a vanished America. As one old-timer (age 46) tells him, “Fishermen are on the wrong side of tomorrow, same as mill workers used to be.? Soon corporate fleets will swamp the remaining independent boats. Nugent laments this fact without romanticizing New Bedford. Thankfully, he is too observant and too jumpy a writer to sustain a solemn or strictly historical narrative. Each chapter here is an individual story — of Sword, Snake, Mako, Mr. Jinx, and other human flotsam — that encapsulates an era. The dapper elderly gentleman fishing from the pier, for example, once worked for the Mob and the CIA. Pink, a foul-mouthed lesbian electrician (who also worked for the Mob), offers to sell Nugent an exquisite 18th-century scrimshaw dildo, and the item prompts his reflections on Nantucket?s distinctive whaling — and sexual — history. Crime (organized, disorganized, and corporate), drugs (you name it), smuggling, superstition, and the sea, always the sea: Nugent riffs on all of these, conveying the restless rhythms and nervy dialect of the place. Finally, he does what any writer worth his salt should do; he makes us think about this rusty old town — about all the rusty old towns — that we speed past on the highway.