HULL CREEK, by Jim Nichols, April 2011, Down East, $24.95, 244 pages.
Planes flying in from Boston used to arrive at 5 and 9 every evening at the Bar Harbor Airport; and as a ticket agent, Jim Nichols waited at the airport between flights with nothing much to do. So he read Hemingway. And one day, he decided to eat up time by picking up the pen himself.
“I figured I’d try, and I sold one short story in a year; so it turned out I could,” Nichols said.
Twenty-five years later, his first novel “Hull Creek,” set to be released April 1, is a captivating story. Through one fisherman’s eyes, the reader sees how coastal Maine has changed as people “from away” have moved to Maine and purchased the property that locals could no longer afford.
“I read a story about someone who lost their house because they couldn’t afford their property taxes in Camden,” Nichols said. “He was the fifth generation living in the home that his ancestors had built. I don’t think that’s … fair.”
Nichols works on the planes that fly people, mail and freight to the inhabited islands such as Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Matinicus in Penobscot Bay. While transporting Matinicus lobster fishermen across 20 miles of water to the mainland, he learned about their hardships when “the bugs” were scarce and the prices low. And he has occasionally offered his hand as sternman to Owls Head lobster fishermen after moving to Warren in 1980.
These experiences led him to create Pequot, a small, imaginary town near Owls Head based largely on the structure of Camden. And then Hull Creek, the piece of inherited coastal property that lobster fisherman Troy Hull is hauling traps to keep. The story maps what changes a man undergoes as he struggles with the reality of losing his childhood home due to a few lousy fishing seasons and the demand for coastal land by flocking summer people.
“If you want to move somewhere nice, you should be able to,” Nichols said, referring to the new summer people. “But some people who’ve lived here their whole life just want to be left alone. They don’t want a lot of money; they just want to be left alone to enjoy life — which is hard to do if you can’t pay your taxes.”
Though the novel may seem anti-tourist and anti-white collar, Nichols doesn’t have personal issues with tourism or office jobs, he’s simply writing about tough times from a lobster fisherman’s perspective.
“It’s just a perspective,” Nichols said. “It’s kind of where I grew up; in my family, we were the blue collar types.”
In Pequot, as in real Maine towns, zones have been established so fishermen can no longer work on their boats or bait at the docks. Fishermen also engage in territorial disputes similar to the Matinicus “lobster wars” that have been followed by the media over the fast few years.
The strong plot merely sets the grounds for the characters to act. The strongest aspect of the novel is Nichols’ ability to bring his fictional people to life through entertaining, candid dialogue.
“I hate over description,” he said. “That was something that I liked about Hemingway — you got a real feeling for his characters. I think it’s so much more effective if the reader is kind of a partner. There’s no way you can describe a human being accurately; so why not give [readers] one or two details and [allow them to] fill in the rest with their imagination. “
Readers imagine Troy as handsome when tourists call him a “Viking” and “stunning,” and his embarrassment betrays his modesty. His intelligence is apparent by his ability to think on his toes, and his imperfections are shown through his tendency toward violent resolution, heavy drinking and occasional thrill-seeking behaviors.
The main character echoes some of the author’s own experiences and personality traits, and other characters reflect people Nichols has met in coastal towns.
The reckless, likeable character of Bill Polky, a corrupt former fisherman who resembles a pirate, is modeled after Nichols’ old friend Emery who died as a young man in a motorcycle accident. They attended Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute together for marine biology and oceanography.
“He had a strange charisma,” Nichols said. “He was from Kittery, smart as a whip too — had a 4.0 — but he was always out drinking and getting in trouble, just like Polky.
“In the book, everyone has a kind of a wound.”
Troy knows all the locals in town, yet he usually acts independently, displaying the Maine characteristic of self-reliance. Nevertheless, love inevitably enters the struggle — though Nichols didn’t plan on it — as personas interact and relations naturally come to light.
“The story is too messy to have one message,” he said. “You know how they say you should be able to describe your story in one sentence — nope.
Nichols’ fiction takes place in Maine simply because that’s what he sees in his mind as stories unfold. The novel resurrects the old Gary’s Diner that used to sit on the water in Rockland, and the book’s popular restaurant Captain Cobb’s mirrors Cappy’s Chowder House in Camden, where the book launch might be planned.
Nichol’s is writing for “the blue-collar guys,” but his layered story will appeal to a variety of people — especially those who know Maine well. The fictional fiddleheads, shags and small-town atmosphere and will lead any Mainer to believe that Troy Hull could be walking by outside their own windows.
Both sides of Nichols’ family have a long history as Mainers. His parents always encouraged him to read, and as a child, Nichols and his eight siblings traded poems they’d written. He decided to instill this love of reading in Troy to add depth to his character and eradicate the cliche of the hard-working, simple-minded fisherman.
“I know lots of people who read constantly like [Troy] did,” said Nichols, referring to blue-collar people he’s met throughout Maine. “They’re not academics, but they’re still smart as hell, you know.”
While riding the ferry recently, Nichols gave an early copy of the book to a man from North Haven.
“He actually came up to me and said, ‘Man, I grew up with those guys [in the book],” Nichols said.
Once Nichols established a network of characters, they started surprising him, and he had to rewrite sections of the novel to make sense of their actions in later chapters. But when they all came together in the climactic ending, only one turnout was possible — and this review isn’t a spoiler.
“Someone asked Hemingway how to write the ending and he said, ‘Out of a hundred possible endings, you choose the inevitable one,’” Nichols said. “[The characters] are all sort of up against it. They’re on the bad side of things, most of them. They can’t win, but they can kind of win. They can, within what’s available to them.”
For information on “Hull Creek,” visit downeast.com or call 594-9544.