Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Making a Small Splash

Everything is a metaphor. The sharp edge of a knife, a shallow stream, that ache in your back or belly. Three days ago I bought a boat. A row boat, that's what I wanted, but not one of those bulky aluminum jobs favored by lifeguards at the Town Park. Nor was I interested in a racing skull, too tippy, and no room for passengers. A kayak or canoe wouldn't do. I'd rather row than paddle.

Wooden watercraft, no matter how small or simple, are expensive. Put the words "wood" and "water" together so they float, and you're talking real money. Even a used wooden row boat will set you back three grand—not counting freight. Then there's the weight problem. I wanted a boat I could handle alone, something under 50 pounds. That put the kibosh on wood. Yet I didn't want some mass-produced fiberglass or aluminum tub.

At last I found what I'd been searching for, a variation on an Adirondack guide boat designed and built by a man named Steve Kaulback out of his small Vermont shop. Called a "Vermont Packboat," it's a double-bowed, 12-foot boat with fixed bronze oarlocks and adjustable cane seats, perfect for leisurely lake rowing, though built for speed and good in rough water. While the hull (molded from a mixture of fiberglass and something called Kevlar) requires little maintenance, the cane seats and cherry gunwales give the boat its artisanal look. Complete with hand milled oars, at under $3,000, believe it or not, it was a bargain. In the parking lot of the Motel 6 where I met Steve and his trailer full of demo boats, I picked out a blue model and wrote him a check.

The lake I live on, Lake Sinclair, is 24 acres. That's a lot of lake. Most of the houses lining its shore are summer homes, others are occupied by retirees. Just about everyone has a boat. Fishing boats, power boats, pontoons, jet-skis. Next to fishing, waterskiing and tow riding are the two most popular activities. In two years here I've rarely seen anyone swim. Sightings of sailboats, kayaks, canoes, or other vessels not powered by motors are equally rare. Frankly, I don't understand it. Among the retirees especially you would think that small boats would be a popular form of relaxation and exercise. Nope. The only thing my fellow lake dwellers seem intent on exercising is power—not their own, but that of some big, loud, stinking, fuel-guzzling gasoline engine. The same people who work out in gyms and partake in aggressive physical sports are for reasons mysterious loathe to exercise on water. Rowing a boat is too damn peaceful; it doesn't properly engage their masculine aggressions. It lacks violence. It's too damned quiet. (True, fishing is just as quiet; but its silence is mitigated by the chance to capture and torture an innocent creature).

Something about rowing a boat goes against the status-quo. In an age of engine-powered aggression, it is an act of rebellion, of quiet insurrection. I feel that way about my writing. When agents reject me, they almost always say the same thing: that my books are "too quiet." One used the word "meditative," another said "brooding," a third said "reflective." Often these words are preceded by the adverb "too," though they need not be, since the fact of being "meditative" (or "reflective" or "brooding" or "quiet") is in itself damning; the current climate in commercial publishing simply won't permit it. Books that don't make a loud enough noise or a big enough splash, that aren't, in other words, driven by big, loud, stinking engines, are anathema to agents and editors, who cannot foist them on a public that likes its entertainment AGGRESSIVE. Here I am launching my gentle little row boats (read: "quiet books") into a sea of roaring, spluttering, screaming powerboats. I want to put up a sign saying "NO WAKE!" Alas, my fellow boaters have beat me to the punch: "NO OARS!" "NO MEDITATING!" "NO BROODING!"

Maritime rules give small boats the right-of-way. No such etiquette exists in commercial publishing, where "smaller boats" are routinely swamped by freighters, tankers, and cruise ships, not to speak of heavily-armed (with multi-city, multi-media publicity campaigns) frigates, cruisers, destroyers and dreadnoughts. Against commercial publishing's vast and powerful armada, what chance has a little row boat—however thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed—got? Though when it comes to commerce or war it stands to reason that bigger, faster, more powerful vessels should triumph, how so when it comes to pleasure? The pleasure I get from rowing my boat is no less, I'm certain, than that derived from horsing around with a 300-horsepower engine, and may be greater, especially when fuel costs are tallied. And I get more exercise.

Yet here I am surrounded by motorboats, the water choppy with their crisscrossing wakes, trying to steer a course among them that won't get me swamped. If they see me at all, those in the other boats look upon me as a curiosity, at best something quaint out of the past, at worst an inconvenience that prevents them from pulling back on their throttles and giving full voice to their aggressions. That my little boat inhibits them is in itself a source of pleasure for me. If I can slow this world down just a little, if I can make it stop gunning its engines, if I can get it not only to slow down but maybe to stop and think—to meditate, to brood—then I'll have accomplished something.

It's what I've tried to do with my "quiet" books: to slow things down. That's one of the great things a good book can do. Publishers insist that "quiet books" don't sell. To which I say the reason they don't sell isn't that they're quiet, but because they are drowned out by engines so loud most people don't even notice they're there.


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