A quick scan of tourism sites for Prince Edward Island brings up photographs of red sand and lighthouses, as well as the occasional image of a redheaded young girl with two braids. Nicholas Herring’s novel Some Hellish is firmly planted on that same island but could not be farther from the bright whimsy of travel advertisements or children’s book covers. It follows a middle-aged fisherman, who shares the name Herring, quietly experiencing an existential crisis of sorts while going through the motions of his daily and seasonal work. The doubleness of an author and protagonist with the same name are an example of the way the novel blurs the lines of the real and unreal, and the possible and impossible, even as it grounds itself in the harsh reality of fishermen’s life – Some Hellish is full of industry men, boats, wharfs, drinking, and breaking-down bodies. The inexplicable and spiritual are never far off, like the group of Tibetan monks that live near Herring and Herring’s survival for over a week after being washed overboard, but so are financial ruin, physical violence and decay, and general despair.
The vivid description of the industry and culture around fishing, which characterizes Herring’s local community, is a defining aspect of Some Hellish. However, the details of Herring’s regular activities are portrayed as such second nature to Herring himself that it becomes difficult for a reader who is not immersed in the same terminology and day-to-day concerns to follow. Similarly, the senses of stagnation and of Herring being untethered from a meaningful life are wrought so palpably that Some Hellish is a very slow read. It rewards the patient reader with language that flows from plain to poetic to profane and any combination thereof, which is occasionally very jarring, and offers a long stay inside Herring’s mind to see how he perceives the world. Names, backstories, and places are introduced as Herring drifts between them, and it is better not to try to keep track of them all. Herring knows and recognizes them, but they emerge and fade back into the background and are not always distinct. Events fold in on themselves and the passage of time is not always clear; rather than being driven forward, the story rocks like it is being carried on a tide. All these aspects might resemble the haze of routine and inundation of barely processed details that make up a real life, but they also make for a strangely exhausting reading experience.
It takes about two thirds of the book to reach a radical turning point in Herring’s life, when he is swept over the side of his fishing boat, leaving behind his friend Gerry. Herring’s community presumes him dead, but eight days later, two men haul him out of the water, four miles from the shore. A moment of the dry humour that threads through the novel appears when the fishermen radio with the news that they “had Herring. The first to respond was Joe McInnis and he said, ‘Like the fish?’ and Willy Lyon said, ‘No, like the man.’” Mortality and livelihood certainly overlap in this hardscrabble environment, and Herring’s miraculous survival pushes him to reassess the way he carries himself through life. However, even striking moments like Herring going over end up with negligible weight and space on the page. The suicide of Dunbar Gillis and the note he leaves behind with instructions for Herring fade out like they barely happened; it might be argued that that is how Herring and his community would realistically handle such a situation, but the narrative does itself a disservice by dismissing events instead of allowing them to fully land.
Some Hellish does not hand over its messages easily, foregoing both easily-parsed characters and typical plot beats. At over three hundred pages, sometimes this reticence is too much to keep a reader, but the art of Nicholas Herring’s writing is found in its melancholy and monotony. He brings a deep familiarity to the stark setting of Prince Edward Island and lobster boats, which comes through in every detail. Herring the character, meanwhile, has a far-reaching mind and his struggle with hopelessness is deeply sympathetic. What Some Hellish asks is that its reader weather their own share of Herring’s world in order to find the compassion and beauty in it.
Our thanks to the publisher, Goose Lane Editions, for the review copy.