Daniel Gumbiner’s first novel, “The Boatbuilder,” opens with Eli Koenigsberg wedging himself through the window of a Northern California farmhouse to look for prescription painkillers. The sleepy fictional town of Talinas is “not used to thieves breaking and entering,” Gumbiner writes, but then Eli (or Berg, as he’s known) is not used to thieving.
You might think burglary would provide a heart-racing start to a novel, but Gumbiner quickly establishes a different pace. Berg risks getting caught, but we go slowly alongside him through the house, lingering on the contents of disappointing drawers: “A seed catalog, lots of photos of boats, two pairs of scissors, a dead black fly.” We’re moving attentively rather than frantically.
Berg eventually happens on a bottle of Lortab pain pills, and takes four. “Soon, he knew, he would be in love with everything.”
“The Boatbuilder” offers a decidedly gentle, sometimes quietly rewarding window onto the attempted recovery of an American opioid addict. It’s a fictional companion piece of sorts to nonfiction books about self-reliance like Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” or Alexander Langlands’s “Craeft,” which argue for the emotional benefits of unplugging and working with your hands. Capturing those interior benefits in fiction is a delicate act, and Gumbiner, the managing editor of The Believer magazine, pins a sense of well-being to the page while other times approaching his themes too explicitly.
Berg has moved to this coastal town from nearby San Francisco. He’s waiting for his musician girlfriend, Nell, to return from a tour. He tells himself he’s only going to keep getting high until Nell is back, and then it’s the straight and narrow for life.
Berg is, as one character calls him, a “digital refugee.” For three years, he worked for Cleanr, a start-up antivirus company. Now, at 27, he has “made it out” — his words. His years at Cleanr coincided with the development of his addiction, kicked off while treating a brain injury from a skiing accident.
Berg is one boatbuilder in the book. The other is his teacher, Alejandro Vega, an artisan in his mid-60s who agrees to let Berg work as his apprentice. Alejandro is a hyper-capable autodidact, a former anthropologist who enthusiastically spirals into obscure hobbies, like carving Elizabethan lutes or making portable pasteurizers for his wife to use on the family farm.
Alejandro’s business thrives because he and his small staff create wooden boats for a drug dealer named JC, who uses them to transport marijuana from Mexico.
Despite Berg’s tangential entanglement with the narcotics trade and his own struggles with addiction, the book’s tensions simmer far more than they boil. Gumbiner is after wisdom, not thrills.
The cast of small-town characters he imagines is like that of a 1990s indie movie; a compliment, in this case. The place and its people are convincingly alive. There’s Woody, whose conversational gambits include explaining why he’s not “addicted” to Six Flags. (“I have a passion for the place. That I will grant you.”) Residents look forward to an event at which a local man will exhibit “50 years of his bobcat photography.”
There are dueling bodies of knowledge in this novel. One comprises the grim specifics of getting high and getting clean, and the tricks of both. In rehab, Berg recalls, he was given “Clonidine, Baclofen, Meloxicam and Gabapentin; 50 mg Seroquel or 100 mg Trazodone to help him sleep.” And much more besides. Once he’s clean, getting high is easier and better, because his tolerance has been lowered.
Set against this are the pleasures of making things by hand and looking more closely at the natural world: Berg learns how to level a chisel, and to know the rates at which various species of wood dry.
There is a Shaker-like modesty to this novel’s aims, and like all such art, it has a high degree of difficulty. Spare and spiritually inflected is not an easy goal. “The Boatbuilder” does often radiate a sense of calm. It also has a few underdeveloped loose ends, including Alejandro’s vague but apparently important relationship with a dead writer named Szerbiak. Berg’s religious background — his grandfather was an esteemed rabbi — is broached but not lengthily explored.
Ultimately, Gumbiner succeeds and stumbles relative to how much he trusts the reader to understand what he’s after without diagramming it.
Alejandro “wanted people to have an intimate relationship with their own environment. The problem, he said, was that people had become too dissociated from the circumstances and conditions of their immediate surroundings.” This thesis statement is overly familiar. “Many people have written about this,” Alejandro concedes at one point, and it’s true. Which certainly doesn’t mean that others, including Gumbiner, shouldn’t. But some ideas in this novel would resonate more loudly if they had gone without saying.
“It’s nice to do things right,” Alejandro tells Berg at one point. “You do this one little thing right, in this moment, you fix this one little thing, and then you think, Maybe I can fix my life.” Well, yes.
The same point is made to far greater effect at more subtle moments, when Gumbiner imagines Berg’s confidence-building steps into a new kind of living. Early in the novel, after he finishes constructing a small coop for an injured chicken, he swells at his modest accomplishment. “It was all out of proportion with what he had done,” Gumbiner writes, “but it was a nice feeling.”
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