The multi-generational tragedies and mythical creatures that pervaded Alexi Zentner’s lauded first novel, Touch, move from the woods of the West Coast to the waters of the East Coast in his follow-up, about a legendary lobster-fishing family.
Set on a fictional island off New Brunswick, the novel tells the tale of the Kings family, who have fished the surrounding waters for three centuries. In addition to having been a fisherman, Brumfitt Kings – the dynasty’s first patriarch – was a painter whose canvases appear to have recorded the past and prophesied the future. One of Brumfitt’s claims to fame was that his wife was delivered to him, Venus-like, from the sea, although she came with a curse: the ocean’s bounty in exchange for every generation’s firstborn son.
The Lobster Kings is narrated by Cordelia, the daughter of the dynasty’s scion, a Vietnam vet named Woody Kings. In her youth, Cordelia had been frustrated by her father’s assumption that her younger brother, Scotty, was the Kings’ heir apparent. It took the old curse rearing its head for her to stake her own claim.
The novel dallies with Shakespeare’s King Lear, which is Woody’s favourite play and the inspiration for Cordelia’s name. But Zentner also sets up parallels his characters don’t see. Woody, our putative Lear, suffers a period of madness in which he violently attacks a poacher and ends up doing a one-year stint at a mental hospital. The name of the novel’s drug-addicted antagonist, Eddie Glouster, echoes the Earl of Gloucester, and Cordelia’s sternman Kenny chimes with the Bard’s Earl of Kent. However, the two stories diverge almost as much as they converge: for starters, Cordelia’s two sisters aren’t false flatterers out to grab an unfair share of their inheritance. As a result, the novel’s connection with its classical inspiration fizzles a bit.
The book gains the most momentum in its middle register – the salty, vernacular parrying between tough-as-nails Cordelia and various male characters. But Zentner drops the rope entirely on a dark yet promising subplot involving a murder on a ghost ship committed by members of a rival community with ties to the drug trade. Its glut of competing influences and uneven tone renders The Lobster Kings an occasionally charming but mostly muddled pastiche.