WHALEFALL, by Daniel Kraus
In marine biology, a whale fall is the body of a dead whale that has slowly descended to the bottom of the ocean. Scavengers strip its flesh, crustaceans and other creatures colonize its skeleton and its decaying bones help sustain countless organisms for years to come, part of the delicate balance of the undersea ecosystem.
It’s lovely, and in keeping with the majesty of the species, that in death a whale bestows life. Daniel Kraus’s thrilling new novel, “Whalefall,” spins the concept into a crazy, and crazily enjoyable, beat-the-clock adventure story about fathers, sons, guilt and the mysteries of the sea. That much of the action takes place in an absurdly improbable setting — inside the various stomachs of a 60-ton sperm whale, where a scuba diver has been trapped after being inadvertently swallowed for lunch — well, that only adds to the book’s brash allure.
That diver is Jay Gardiner, and you won’t meet a more tortured, resourceful fictional character this summer. At 17, he is reeling from the death of his father, Mitt, a legendary diver and mean drunk who had terminal cancer and drowned himself, his pockets full of diving weights, rather than waiting for death to come to him. Jay is racked by guilt — he was estranged from Mitt when he died — and so he decides to atone by recovering Mitt’s remains from the bottom of Monastery Beach, a dangerous spot off the coast of Monterey, Calif.
What is meant to be a quick redemptive dive turns into an epic struggle for survival when a massive whale, swallowing a meal of giant squid, fails to notice the surprise side dish: human teenager. No match for the gravitational pull of the whale’s giant slurp, Jay “slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of raw slime” and then swooshes, as if down a grotesque waterslide, into the first of the whale’s four stomachs.
The book runs along two tracks. One is a moment-by-moment account of Jay’s battle to escape. As in the survival film “127 Hours,” the clock is ticking; each chapter ominously notes how much oxygen remains in Jay’s tank, an hour’s worth in all. For every positive development (Jay avoids death-by-squid in the whale’s mouth) a new disaster arises (Jay gushes blood from his neck, blows out his eardrums, loses his fins, snaps off one of his teeth, burns his hands on acid and faces possible death from methane poisoning). At a certain point he begins to seem less like Jonah and more like Job — the hapless vessel for every bit of bad luck you can think of, and a lot more besides.
In the second track, interspersed with the first, Jay revisits his past and tries to work through his messy relationship with his father. A revered éminence grise in the Monterey Bay diving community, Mitt was also a disappointed old man who couldn’t hold down a job and spent much of his time lecturing his son and railing against humans’ careless disregard of the ocean and its inhabitants.
Kraus, the author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels and, with Guillermo del Toro, the novel version of the film “The Shape of Water,” brings the rigor of a scientist and the sensibility of a poet to his descriptions of the undersea world. Beginning his dive, Jay is astonished to see what looks like a galaxy’s worth of twinkling stars in the water.
“Stars churn like ocean tide, spread thin in cosmic dust, iris tight into blinding quasars,” Kraus writes. “One wheel of stars flattens into the shape of a lash. A second wheel does the same. A third, a fourth, every star cluster now an interstellar highway.” Thrillingly, these are “the bioluminescent lights of Architeuthis” — a giant squid, making a rare public appearance near the ocean’s surface.
“Architeuthis is 30-some-feet long from mantle fins to tentacle toes,” Kraus writes. “Half a ton of gloppy flesh, floating in place, spreading like oil, its natural lights the glinting eclipses of a thousand moons.”
The squid, soon to be Jay’s unhappy neighbor in the whale’s innards, will play a crucial role in his fight to live. So will other bits of undigested detritus — an old gray gym sock, a box of Brillo pads, a gorgeous, glowing pink jellyfish that makes a handy flashlight.
Even as Jay summons the past from the depths of his memory, the reader swims in her own sea of literary associations. Pinocchio, Moby Dick, Jonah’s biblical “big fish,” the creature that gives the main character such a run for his money in “The Old Man and the Sea” — all of these swirl in the background, along with Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” loved by Mitt for its depiction of Monterey.
I’m not one for slippery viscera, slimy effluvia, bits of dying squid or anything that suggests “a sloshing basin of jelly,” all things that apparently feature in the inner workings of whales. But the technical descriptions of the undersea world, and the physicality of Jay’s predicament, drowned out my squeamishness. I was absolutely gripped, unsure to the very end whether Jay would prevail.
Mitt becomes three-dimensional and rather wonderful in Jay’s revised understanding, even if the psychology can sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed. At one point, Jay tries to conjure what Mitt once told him about dealing with predators. The best option, Jay recalls his father advising him, is when “the prey becomes so dangerous the predators let him go.”
But the star of the book is the whale — magnificent, unfathomable, full of intelligence and pathos. (Wait until you get to the part in which a bunch of its sperm-whale friends protect it from a pod of killer orcas by fanning out in the rosette shape known as the marguerite formation.)
The whale is elderly, and, like Mitt, keenly aware of its mortality. The blocks of concrete Jay finds in its stomach, along with the other flotsam? They’re there for a reason.
WHALEFALL | By Daniel Kraus | 336 pp. | MTV Books | $27.99
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro desks. More about Sarah Lyall
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