Sunday, February 22, 2009


Mark Kurlansky writes about what he knows: coastal communities and life on the sea, writes John Freeman in The Australian

MANY years ago, when he was just a big, strong kid spending the summer working on a lobster boat in Long Island Sound, Mark Kurlansky learned an unusual lesson about how dangerous the sea could be. Connecticut and New York lobstermen were in a dispute about territory that season, but it should have been called a war.
"You'd be hauling pots and somebody would come by and fire a shotgun at you," he recalls.
Sitting in a swivel chair at his desk on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the burly, sleepy-eyed 61-year-old writer perks up into a froth of indignation. "Talk about an early lesson in the stupidity of war. I'm from Connecticut. And here are my Connecticut friends shooting at me!"
Kurlansky's distaste for violence stuck with him. When his friends enlisted or were drafted for Vietnam, he went off to university to study theatre. He marched in protests and joined the Students for a Democratic Society. But aside from five years away from crustaceans, Kurlansky wouldn't be deterred from the sea.

His tours of duty as a journalist included Miami, Haiti and numerous other places close to water. And his book debut came with A Continent of Islands, a travelogue of the Caribbean.

Since then, Kurlansky has made his living largely from things that come from the sea. He has written bestselling books on oysters, the Basque people, who were among the world's first whalers and, of course, Cod, his breakout bestseller on the flaky whitefish.

It was while researching that book that Kurlansky finally reconnected with the salty world he glimpsed as a teenager. He had travelled up to Gloucester, Massachusetts, America's oldest fishing place, a town that has always had a seedy, tough reputation, and remembered how much he liked the place. Then, after the book came out, Kurlansky kept coming back: for the food and the people and the sense of remove from Manhattan's summer swelter. He also loved the hardscrabble, hilarious fisherman of Portuguese and Sicilian descent, men who might swear and cuss, but also liked to dress up in drag and parade through town on holidays.

The Last Fish Tale, Kurlansky's latest book, is an illustrated love song of sorts to the colour and history of these men and their town, a place like so many parts of America threatened with extinction by the great changes in the environment and the economy. If it does start to disappear, Kurlansky argues, America would lose its true founding colony.

Read John Freeman's full review at The Australian online.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.
The Last Fish Tale is published by Jonathan Cape.
Mark Kurlansky will be a guest of the Perth Writers Festival at the end of this month.

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