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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book Review: Swim that Rock

Charlestown Parks & Recreation Director’s first novel
Swim That RockBy Will Collette

Jay Primiano, Charlestown Parks & Recreation Director, has written (on his own time) his first novel, Swim that Rock, with his long-time friend John Rocco. Rocco has written or illustrated twelve other books and won the coveted Caldecott award in 2012 for his illustrations in his book Blackout. He was the one who approached Jay with the idea of writing a book together.

The book draws on their mutual experience as quahoggers in the waters of Narragansett Bay. Jay first started at age eleven as a hand for his friend and neighbor Gene Beebe, captain of the lobster boat Sea Hunter. Later on, Jay got his own boat, and met John Rocco when young John was hanging around the docks looking for a way to get a job working on the boats.

Jay tried him out and found him to be a good picker, and took him on. They worked together for five years before going along on separate career paths but nonetheless stayed BFFs.

John’s pitch to Jay happened in 2004 and, as you know if you do the math, this book was a long-time coming.

However, after reading it, I can tell you it was worth the wait. This book is being marketed toward young adults. However, I think adults interested Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island culture and the life of the men and women who try to earn their livings on the water will enjoy this book, too.

I haven’t read a lot of young adult fiction. I didn’t when I was an actual young adult in the 1950s. I found non-fiction to be more interesting, especially when it was about history or science. The first fiction I remember reading was Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novels, and that led me into reading a lot of that genre throughout the 50s and 60s.

My first serious exposure to young adult fiction came when I was middle-aged and got hooked on reading the Harry Potter books. My hats off to J.K. Rowling for getting millions of young people (and millions of adults) to pick up 600+ page novels and avidly read them.

Unfortunately, there’s a new study out showing an alarming recent drop in the number of young people who read for pleasure. Seems like we need more interesting fiction for young people.

When I picked up Jay’s book, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to see what angle he would use to capture and hold his readers’ attention.

Spoiler: there are no wizards or dragons in Swim that Rock. And, thankfully, scant few gimmicks. You are pulled into the life of 14-year old Jake Cole right after the death of his father in a fishing accident. Jake’s family, like so many Rhode Island families, lived on the brink. They had a house and a small diner, hocked to the hilt to the local loan shark because people like the Coles can’t get bank loans. Jake's father fished and his mother and sister worked in the diner.

The death of Jake’s father results in the loan shark taking their home, and if the family doesn’t come up with $10,000 soon, they’ll also lose the diner and the upstairs apartment where they were living. 

Jake’s mother’s Plan B is to move the family in with Jake’s grandmother in Arizona when the boys from the Italian Club come by to take over the diner. Jake does not want to go to Arizona.

I’m not going to give up any spoilers by telling you what Jake did to help his family survive, but you know from the instant you meet his character, that he will do whatever it takes. Unlike so many coming of age tales, Jake finds that simple judgments of good and bad don’t work very well when so much is at stake. However, he is a thoroughly good kid, and you have to root for him to succeed.

The book is filled with vivid characters besides Jake. There’s Captain Gene Hassard, modeled after Jay’s first boss. Jake’s best friend winds up working as his picker as John Rocco did for Jay in real life. There’s another boat captain who behaves like a modern day pirate. You meet Jake’s mother and sister, the motley characters around town, the mob money lender and his crew of gavones and lots of other quahoggers.

There’s a very sweet love interest, Darcy, a young waitress in the Riptide Diner owned by the Cole family. As Somerset Maugham described it in Brideshead Revisited, you can hear a “thin bat’s squeak of sexuality” in Jake and Darcy's interactions.

image of EPOs checking boater
I laughed to see that the single most evil character in the book is a DEM fisheries enforcement officer – a “clam cop” – named Delvecchio. 

I asked Jay what his wife Lisa thought of this, given that she is a high ranking official at DEM – i.e. how many nights on the couch did it cost him? – but Jay said she was fine with it.

What makes Swim that Rock good, aside from well-crafted characters, is the way Jay and John use what they know to paint a vivid picture of Rhode Island and in particular life on the water. I think any Rhode Island reader will enjoy the way Jay and John capture our state, flaws and all.

They pull no punches when they describe back-breaking work that tears up your hands and leaves you weary along with the everyday danger of death and disabling injury.

Jay made a point of telling me that as dangerous as it is to work out on Narragansett Bay, it’s nothing compared to working out in the open ocean. 

Commercial fishing usually makes the US Labor Department’s list of most dangerous occupations. It was #2 last year, after logging.

There is no effort to make the work sound romantic, although the characters, true to life, are dedicated to the work, despite the perils and the hassles with the “clam cops.”

That’s one of the main reasons why Swim that Rock is a cross-over book that adults, especially Rhode Islanders, would also enjoy. 

Even though the book does not have a William Goldman ending where beloved characters meet horrible fates neither does it end with all the characters being fixed for life. As in the real world, there are still many challenges ahead, and maybe another book or two.

Swim that Rock, 293 pages. Co-authored by John Rocco and Jay Primiano. Illustrated by John Rocco. Candlewick Press. $16.99 in hard-bound, $9.99 on Kindle.