April 27, 2006

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Trawler, by Redmond O’Hanlon (Vintage Books, 2006, 339 pages)

There’s just something about the classic “fish out of water” story, isn’t there? Some guy goes in over his head, out of his element, and learns something new about himself and life. It’s inspirational, right?

Redmond O’Hanlon has made a career out of living this kind of story. Lauded as a modern-day adventurer, O’Hanlon, a white English guy in his 50s, takes his British peculiarities on some fairly wild roads (Borneo, the Congo). His latest book, Trawler, is about being Redmond O’Hanlon on a deep-sea fishing trawler off the coast of Scotland.

It sounds like an exciting trip. Working trawlers is, according to the book, the most dangerous job in Britain. Storms, waves (or humps), water and ice make for a thrilling, albeit lucrative, time. O’Hanlon signed onto his boat, the Norlantean, just in time for a winter outing to the deepest part of the northern Atlantic. Some considered this suicidal, but the boat’s captain owes a lot of money to the bank and needs to work year round just to keep his ship.

O’Hanlon’s cabin mate and friend is Luke Bullough, an oceanographer who is elated to be on board and simply thrilled at the prospect that the fishermen’s nets could bring up some samples of exotic life from the deepest part of the sea.

Trawler is highly detailed and informative on areas ranging from deep-sea ecology to commercial fishing economics. And, in that British way, it’s quite amusing.

However, to really like a story about Redmond O’Hanlon on a fishing trawler, I think you have to really like Redmond O’Hanlon. And I didn’t.

About half the time, I kept wishing that he’d stay in his cabin and sleep, as he kept expressing a desire to do. The other half of the time I was agreeing with him that, no, he should not have gone on the trip at all.

The O’Hanlon of Trawler is kind of a whiner. Maybe it’s a British thing, but O’Hanlon bitches constantly about the rigors of the trip. He whines about seasickness, waves, wind and his cabin. And, in talking about the fisherman on board, he comes across as somewhat smug, almost priggish.

There also were several points where I wondered, being a writer myself, what he was using to record the half-page-long direct quotes that made up much of the narrative. Was he taping the entire trip? Was he making it up? Does he actually talk that way and, if so, does he know how annoying it is?

There are better first-person real-life adventure books out there — the ones by Jon Krakauer spring to mind — and better accounts of the fishing life. I suppose what O’Hanlon does best is cramming a college class’ worth of oceanography and economics into one somewhat palatable tome. C+

— Robert Greene


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