The Fisherman's Son

The Fisherman's Son

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by Michael Koepf

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Drifting in a life raft off the northern California coast after a horrifying shipwreck, Neil Kruger retreats from his fear by recalling scenes from his childhood. He finds solace in memories of his father, a taciturn man who introduced him to the fisherman's life; his mother, who worked at the local cannery to keep the family fed; and a host of local fishermen, whose…  See more details below


Drifting in a life raft off the northern California coast after a horrifying shipwreck, Neil Kruger retreats from his fear by recalling scenes from his childhood. He finds solace in memories of his father, a taciturn man who introduced him to the fisherman's life; his mother, who worked at the local cannery to keep the family fed; and a host of local fishermen, whose battles with the sea become for Neil both a model and a tragic foreshadowing of his own fate.

At once a stunning evocation of a dying world and an intimate story of a troubled family, The Fisherman's Son is a triumphant and utterly authentic novel about our lifelines to childhood and the pull of the sea.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A young man contemplates his past as he awaits rescue in this tale of high-seas adventure and family turmoil. Neil Kruger, the son of a Half Moon Bay, California, fisherman, follows in his father's footsteps, becoming a full-time fisherman, and with his brother, Paul, a part-time smuggler. An accident during a smuggling run leaves Paul drowned and Neil drifting in a life raft recalling the camaraderie and hardship of a fisherman's life and the growing estrangement between his mother and himself as the sea separates them. Koepf deftly combines the sweeping drama of the sea with the more intimate drama of a troubled family, telling his tale in a simple, yet lyrical style that perfectly suits his subject matter. -- Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, Andover, Massachusetts
A compelling tale of a hard-scrabble fishing community and the knotty ties between father and son.
San Francisco Chronicle
Illuminating. . .absolutely superb.
Los Angeles Times
Brilliantly written and mesmerizingly evocative. . .extraordinary. . . .A gritty novel with a hard-hitting intensity. The pages reek of fish guts, hardship and rough companionship. There is a passionate authenticity in his words. Remarkable.
Kirkus Reviews
A lyrical if sometimes brutal first novel about a boy's apprenticeship to his hard-luck fisherman father on California's northern coast, from a former professional fisherman and current screenwriter for Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. Koepf's 19 years on the water pay off here in spades with his superbly observed meditation on the last three decades of a dying breed. His young protagonist, Neil, first watches from afar with fear and reverence as his father pursues life and livelihood as a salmon fisherman, venturing out in small two-man boats from the treacherous, rockbound coast of San Francisco's Half Moon Bay. Financial hardship sends Neil out with his father beginning at age 12. Their shared profession is characterized by booms and busts as fish and storms come and go, bootleggers tempt honest men into bloody snares, and the iron-fisted Italian cannery owner ensures that no one ever crawls out from under a crushing debt. Yet the beauty of the coast and the moods of the sea are here rendered with such precision and allure that we understand Neil's growing enthrallment, even as his parents' marriage comes apart. Told as a series of memories by Neil as he floats on a life-raft, the plot's vivid progression easily outweighs any irritation at a rather obvious narrative device. Gradually, Neil's circumstances become clear: His boat sank during an illegal offshore run he and his brother agreed to make to pay off their debts. When their new employers expect them to cooperate in scuttling a boatload of illegal Chinese immigrants, Neil objects, and things go awry. He responds as his fatherþor any other upstanding fishermanþwould, sealing his doom, and bringing the story to asatisfying and resonant end. A perfect fictional counterpart to The Perfect Storm: pithy scenes, a fine visual style, and artfully woven life stories.

From the Publisher
"Brilliantly written and mesmerically evocative, Köepf's extraordinary novel is a tribute to tough men and their long-suffering, and sometimes not-so-long-suffering, families."
The Los Angeles Times

"[Köepf] has filled The Fisherman's Son with bountiful helpings of the heart and vigor that we look for in the Great American Novel."
The Oregonian

"Imagine Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm without its long-winded passages or the dry-as-toast science. That's what you get with Michael Köepf's powerful and poignant novel."
The Denver Post

"The memories and flashbacks that compose the bulk of the book display a remarkable diversity. They range through adventures on the high seas, coming-of-age tales, family dramas, and some absolutely superb descriptions of the daily work on a fishing boat. . . . My eight-year-old son, who insisted I read to him all the shipwreck scenes, listened wide-eyed, gulping, utterly enthralled."
The San Francisco Chronicle

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A fist of wind struck the raft, lifting an edge. Neil rolled to the high  side, and the raft fell back. A glow of light flashed over the sea. A  rumble of thunder followed from far away. The storm was turning.

Near dawn, the clouds opened for a minute. He saw cold stars. A light  flashed far in, then was gone. Point Montara? A car on the coast road? He  was drifting fast, up and into the shipping lanes. His best chance was a  ship. If the clouds and rain lifted from the sea, it was a good chance. A  ship bound in or out of the Golden Gate would spot him, and he would be  saved. With light he'd have a chance. He hung on, bracing himself against  the flotation chamber, waiting for dawn. Counting time with each rising  sea, each hang and twist, each sideways fall. His mind drifted too. Back  to a safer sea of remembrance.

The beach came again. The same beach in the northwest end of Half Moon  Bay below Pillar Point where his father and mother's dream was murdered by  the storm. He was on the beach three years later. He was older, stronger.

A fishing boat was in trouble: the Norland, Ott Bergstrom's boat.  It had been driven into the surf line by another fierce southeaster  attacking the bay through its exposed southern entrance. After three days,  the storm had blown itself out. The sun was shining. The Norland  lay grounded midway through the surf. Waves erupted with explosions of  white over the stricken vessel. A crowd of people watched from the beach,  Neil and his mother among them. Three men could be seen working in brief  bursts of activity on the Norland's sloping deck. With each blow of  white water they ducked behind the tilted cabin, seeking shelter. His  father was one of the men. Ott Bergstrom and Cort Heinkel were the other  figures clinging to the lee side of the cabin.

His father had been fishing crab with Ott and Cort on the Norland.  The crab season had been good. As the weeks went by, the Norland  had unloaded crate after crate of the crabs. But things had gone bad.

For three nights and days, his father, Ott, and Cort had fought to keep  the boat off the beach, out in the raging bay. Now they had lost.

They had been at sea pulling crab pots when the southeaster struck. There  was no time to attempt a run for the city and the protection of San  Francisco Bay. The breaking bar outside the Golden Gate would have rolled  them under. Somehow, they made it back in to Half Moon Bay, maneuvering  through the outer reefs, white with monstrous combers. But there was no  way off the boat--the seas were cresting and breaking all along the fish  dock.

His father, Ott, and Cort made fast to the Norland's mooring  amidst hills of water pushed by wind. They dumped their crab crates  overboard and ran their engine ahead to lessen drag on the mooring. Their  skiff, tied to the Norland's stern, quickly sank. The men cut it  loose to prevent it from fouling the boat's propeller. It lay on the  beach, crushed by the surf.

Each night, Neil went with his mother to the raging beach. They parked  facing the sea with other cars containing wives and children of fishermen.  Henry Cabral on the Evon and Carmelo Denari on the Cefula  were out on the bay. Each had a deckhand, a young boy hired from town. All  were stranded like his father. Through the dark, rainy night, the women on  the beach kept the motors in the cars running. They left their headlights  on. Neil caught glimpses of the white hulls rising and falling between  waves out on the bay. He was old enough to know that the lights were on  for another reason: They helped the imprisoned men on the bay judge their  position in relation to the beach. The closer the boats dragged mooring  toward the watching eyes of the headlights, the closer they came to  disaster in the raging line of surf.

By the second night, the women stood shifts in one car at a time. Neil  stayed with them, perched on the edge of the front seat, peering out the  windshield.

He saw faint mast lights swinging wildly, appearing and disappearing in  rain and mountainous seas. He imagined the men on the boats between black  mountains of water, trapped in the tiny prisons of the boats' cabins.

Inside the warm car, the women were cheerful. He thought they didn't  understand. It was like a party, not a vigilant watch for tragedy. He  remembered the limp doll on the beach. His father and the other fishermen  could be spit up like broken toys.

Henry Cabral's wife, Annie, a woman whose round face always seemed to be  smiling, sat in the back seat with Bernice Bergstrom, a large lady with a  pointed nose and red cheeks. They wore kerchiefs and shared a steaming  thermos bottle of coffee laced with bourbon. Neil sat in front between his  mother and Bethel, Cort Heinkel's wife. Bethel was tall and thin, with  dark eyes and long hair that spilled out from beneath the kerchief tied  tight to her head. She spoke differently than his mother or the other  women, like a cowboy's girlfriend in the movies. At home, his grandmother  called Bethel "bar trash," but he wasn't sure what she meant.

The women joked about the men. They did not seem scared. They talked  about movies, the Hit Parade, other women in Half Moon Bay. While  they gossiped, his father could be drowned. To escape their laughter, Neil  leaned closer to the windshield, closer to the slap of the wipers.

After a while, Bethel's fingers pinched him on the cheek.

"Hey, little sailor, Daddy's okay. They're doing fine out there.  Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, sweetheart."

He turned and glared with anger. This was not a party. He was scared to  say it. Bethel read the anger in his face.

"Whoa, take it easy." She leaned closer and whispered in his ear. The  smell of strong coffee, bourbon, and strange perfume came to his nose.  "Psst, I'm worried too, but do you want to scare your mother to death?"  Bethel pulled back and winked.

He understood.

By dawn of the third day, the storm vigil was over. The men had lost.  Their fuel ran out. Without an engine, the strain on the mooring was too  great. First light found the Norland aground in the surf.

But the boat still had a chance. The storm was blown out. The sky was  clear, the air calm. The Norland rested halfway through the surf  line. An attempt would be made to save it before the waves battered it to  pieces.

Beyond the breakers, fellow fishermen maneuvered their boats: Henry  Cabral on the Evon, Carmelo Denari on the Cefula. Henry was  attempting to float a line through the surf, attached to a cluster of crab  buoys. If the men on the Norland caught the line, they could use it  to haul in a heavy hawser. The hawser, once attached to the  Norland, would help bring its bow around into the surf, keep it  from being pushed farther and farther up and onto the beach. At high tide  and towing in tandem, the Evon and the Cefula would attempt  to pull the Norland free.

The Evon maneuvered close to the beach. Henry Cabral stood on the  flying bridge. His deckhand was on the stern. They were dangerously close  to the breaking crests. Henry waved, signaling his deckhand to toss the  buoys. The pickup line attached to the buoys paid out from the stern into  the white surf. Driven by the breaking waves, the line drifted in toward  the Norland.

Suddenly, a large swell rolled in from beyond the Evon, rising up  from the bay, dark green, cresting white. People on the beach cried out.  The Evon was in danger of being thrown to the beach with the  Norland. White smoke shot from the Evon's exhaust stack as  Henry made for deeper water. The green monster of water came to the  Evon, taking her up and up, bow to the sky, threatening to throw  her over onto her own deck. On the flying bridge, Henry Cabral stood like  a jockey leaning forward in stirrups, while the deckhand hung on for his  life in the aft stay cables, legs kicking air. The little fishing boat  came to the crest, balancing like a toy, with its propeller exposed and  spinning. The monster broke and fell with a roar, but the Evon  twisted sideways, falling off to seaward. The crowd on the beach cheered.  Neil's mouth was without sound, for seconds later the wall of white water  smothered the Norland in an explosion of white. As the white wall  passed ever smaller to the sand, somehow, the men on deck were still  holding on beneath the cabin.

The Evon's escape from the green wall pulled the pickup line away  from the Norland. The buoys and line drifted wide of the grounded  vessel. Like people at a football game, the crowd on the beach waved and  shouted for the Evon to adjust position. Soon, however, the crowd  pointed to something else in the surf. A man. A man swimming toward the  crab buoys. Each advancing line of white water covered the swimmer's head,  but he kept reappearing on the surface of foam, arms stroking forward.  Back on the Norland, Ott Bergstrom and Cort Heinkel were still  crouched at the side of the cabin. Neil's heart raced. The head, the  stroking arms in the water were his father's.

"Go get it, Ernie," a man yelled from the crowd.

His father came to the cluster of buoys, grabbed them, and held on as  several waves passed over his head. He pushed the buoys under his body and  began swimming back toward the Norland. Twice, he was washed off  the buoys. Twice, he remounted and swam on.

The swimmer reached the Norland. Neil's heart swelled with pride  as the crowd cheered again. Ott and Cort reached for the buoys, then  pulled his father out of the sea, up and over the Norland's gunnel,  awash with white water. His father was beyond the power and force of the  sea itself.

Later, the tide lowered. The Norland, in waist-deep surf, lay on  her starboard beam. A hawser stretched from her bow out through the surf  to the Evon and the Cefula tied in tandem, idling seaward,  waiting for the tug-of-war with the Norland when the tide came  in.

While his mother spoke to another woman, a man from the crowd handed Neil  a bottle of whiskey. "Hey, boy, run this out to your old man and his  pals," the man commanded.

He knew if he moved quickly his mother would have no chance to call him  back.

Holding the bottle high over his head, he splashed into the water at a  dead run. The cold made him want to turn back. But the men on the boat had  seen him. They waved him on. The water came chest high. A wave splashed  his face. His head ached, the salt burned his throat. He came to the side  of the Norland. His father, Ott, and Cort were laughing down at him  from the crazy, sideways deck. Wet clothing clung to their bodies. Big  arms reached down. Neil slipped. His head went underwater, but he held on  to the bottle. The arms found him, took him, swung him up into the air,  out of the sea.

"Attaboy," his father said.

The men drank from the bottle. Wet and shivering, Neil had never felt  more important in his life. He had come to the edge of another world, a  world where children did not go.

But satisfaction soon washed away as cold filled his body. He looked back  to the beach. His mother stood apart from the other people, close to the  water's edge, hands in her pockets, watching. Watching him. He knew what  she was thinking. He had gone too far.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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What People are saying about this

Larry McMurtry
A fine novel of the sea, absorbing in its description of men who live by, on, and in a sense, for the sea: exalted by its beauty, hypnotized by its power, and if they are unlucky or unwise, destroyed by its cruelty.

Meet the Author

Michael Köepf worked for nineteen years as a commercial fisherman, the same trade as that of his father and brothers. Formerly a journalist and a teacher, he is currently writing a screenplay on Lewis and Clark for Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG. Köepf lives in Elk, California.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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