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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Fred Waitzkin, who wrote elegantly about his son in Searching for Bobby Fischer, turns the tables and takes on his father in The Last Marlin. This heartfelt memoir, laced with poetic descriptions of blue marlin fishing, reveals a family life as stirring and tumultuous as the shark-infested sea.
Waitzkin's parents -- Abe, a savvy light-fixtures salesman, and Stella, a nihilistic artist -- were an awkward match. Recalled Stella, "I was struck by your father's hypnotic eyes. I would talk to him about Emerson, Thoreau, Dickens, and he would smile and nod. I believed that he loved these writers. Abe could convince you of anything."
In the 1950s, Abe made a name for himself, closing big deals in expensive restaurants, fancy Caribbean hotels, and aboard his angling craft, the Ebb Tide. Meanwhile, Stella reveled in the burgeoning art scene, rubbing shoulders with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning at jazz clubs in Greenwich Village.
The marriage deteriorated, and Abe's body, fragile to begin with, withered further. His enthusiasm for business, however, never waned. "I had frequently watched men and women fall within my father's spell," writes Waitzkin. "It was an odd thing. As my father grew older and more frail, his magnetism and power increased. A gesture, a nod or a grimace was enough to spur people to jump, to laugh, to agree. His ability to exercise his will, to sell, achieved a near perfect economy of effort."
Abe was unfailingly ruthless to those who crossed him, including Stella's father. While desperately ill, Abe refused a call from his own sister Celia. "I pointed to the receiver and Dad shook his head, and mouthed the words, no way, and, then, I want the god-damned shares back. Then we'll talk. This was vintage Abe Waitzkin, tightening the screws, using sickbed leverage."
While Fred idolized his father, Fred's younger brother, Bill, wanted little to do with Abe. Bill and Fred, though, inherited a common love for the sea from their dad. At an early age Bill and Fred trolled the Ebb Tide around Bimini, the fishing haven that Ernest Hemingway had discovered 20 years prior. Bill wrote a novel, Rogue Shark, and scoured a South Carolina bog for shark teeth to correct a flawed model in New York's Museum of Natural History. He insisted that upon his father's gravestone be placed his childhood sketch of a leaping marlin.
The small island of Bimini is an escape, and Waitzkin's memories of it are interspersed through The Last Marlin like a succession of dreams. The sensual heat of the island stirred his adolescent sexuality. Waitzkin remembers playing the congas for exotic Caribbean dancers. "Everything I had poured out when Sexy Mama came onstage in a cape. She was wild-eyed, threw the cape into the audience and leaped topless through a circle of flames. Then she spread her arms wide and shook her breasts while I punished the skins with rolling slaps, picked up the drum and thrilled them with a thunderous base that shook the plywood walls. They were cheering while she made love to the beat and then looked my way for something new."
The water around Bimini is alive with marlin, tuna, shark, kingfish, and mackerel. From an early age, Waitzkin showed the proclivity of a natural angler, and his memories of struggles with 150-pound marlin are richly described. The bounty off Bimini is near comical, and armchair anglers will envy the mastery of Ansil Saunders, the "Michael Jordan of bonefishing."
Of course, accidents when fishing for such large fish are common, and catching the marlins off Bimini is only half the battle -- getting to and from the small island is an adventure in itself. Waitzkin, whose navigating skills do not match his fishing skills, once nearly lost his family at sea. Particularly harrowing is a story he relays of a skilled angler submerged by one of the beasts.
Along with the scares come moments of perfection. "Sometimes the ocean just opens up, reveals itself. All of a sudden there's no more resistance or dead water, the clues are sharp and urgent. Color changes, wind and weed lines, edges of storms and tidal rips are fresh trails. You move ahead like a scout, body tingling and sweating, no more small talk with wives and friends, just listening to the seabirds, watching each dip and flutter -- the birds will show where to put the baits."
Waitzkin's father is never far from his thoughts. After Abe passes away, Fred realizes that he himself is not suited for business and is not welcomed by his father's cronies. In a way, Stella won. "On some visits, we argue about Abe, and Mother says to me, 'But you know, you turned out more like me than him.' "
But to the end, Fred defends his father's legacy. "My mother always hated these bourgeois places by the sea where Abe ordered lavishly and gave big tips. I love them." For Waitzkin, fishing is hope -- a trait that his father never lost. Despite Abe's failing health, he always had another deal to make; despite Abe's death, there is always another fish in the sea. "Bimini was a place where you could pull in fish forever, where you could troll and never grow old, where your father would never die." Fishing for marlin off the coast of Bimini with his own wife, daughter, and son, Waitzkin can reconcile all that divided his parents. (Brenn Jones)