By Paul Diamond
Swell is a rollicking picaresque novel that follows the misadventures of Orange Whippey, a young man who lives on the salty coastal Maine island of Bismuth. A former whaling port, Bismuth is both an unaccommodating and wondrous place, and it's about to become the center of a new whaling enterprise. The twist is that sea mammals aren't being hunted, but rather domesticated and herded as part of a most bizarre money-making enterprise. When three vying factions clash for control of this whale of a business venture, Orange becomes inadvertently involved.
Like his cat, Orange is "equal parts hubris and curiosity." He's also opinionated, disenfranchised, idle, and content. "There's no point in trying to hide my laziness, and general dissipation"”my supposed moral turpitude and personal lack of accomplishment are qualities that have been described to me at substantial length throughout my life."
Corwin Ericson's debut novel offers many delights. One is watching Orange get subjected to all manner of abuse, including a simulated deep-sea dive, dirty restaurant work, numerous occasions where he falls overboard, wearing other people's clothing, getting abducted by a sexy/angry woman, and meeting his greatest fear headlong"”having to swim half-naked in pond filled with vampiric lampreys (eel-like creatures). For Orange, even a jaunt in the sauna with naked ladies or a BBQ with Koreans can transform into roguishly painful event.
Orange's many diatribes and commentaries are yet another delight. For example, finding himself conscripted as a deckhand on a fishing boat, Orange describes Mr. Lucy, the boat owner, as determined "to wring every last drop of suffering from a day that was otherwise merely soaked in toil. As one of God's stiff and unbending agents upon the earth, Mr. Lucy saw to cultivating his rectitude into a salty pillar of disagreeability and impossibly regular adherence to an agenda of self-abuse that began long before dawn each day and ended each evening with the man making arrangements with his Lord to find the next day colder, rainier, and full of heavier things to make other people lift." While Orange is uniquely sardonic, all the characters are full of intelligent wit.
Thankfully, the author seduces his readers into following the characters oddly amusing disquisitions on German beer, island life, the busyness of the mainland, "whale roads," bears as brides, and many other impossibly bizarre topics.