|At the Waterline
by Brian K. Friesen
| Ooligan Press, 2017
Inspired by his firsthand experiences while working on the Columbia River, Brian K. Friesen’s debut novel, At the Waterline, is a reflective, multi-faceted story. The book follows Chad, a man with a penchant for the water, through his mission to find himself after his tragic divorce. A student of literature and writing, he lives in his broken-down boat and works in a shop on the marina, spending much of his time examining the people around him, comparing them to himself, and searching for meaning in every interaction.
Upon starting the book, every reader should appreciate the two sketches Friesen included in the front. The first is a guide to the landscape of the novel, and the second offers a diagram of boat anatomy. Both proved helpful along the way. Much like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, being able to follow the characters of At the Waterline around the simple contours of the map added a layer of entertainment. And the boat diagram is something I always felt Moby-Dick lacked, as a book that employs an abundance of nautical terms. It isn’t exhaustive, but as someone unfamiliar with boats, I referenced it frequently.
The novel contains a large cast of characters, and everyone in the story is unique, pulling dread, resonance, and love from the reader in their own corresponding moments. I found the most compelling characters to be Moe, a Native American allegorist, and Barry, a former priest. Moe is only present in the novel for a short time, but his spirit persists through the characters’ thoughts and memories of him for the duration of the story, continuing to influence their lives even when he’s gone. Barry’s story is surprising; as someone who is introduced subtly and initially seems to be a minor character, the layers Friesen continuously adds to enlighten the reader of his fall and return to priesthood are unexpected, yet delightful.
Friesen does a touching job of nudging characters towards realizing the flaws in their present situation and begin tending to their self-fulfillment. He often does so with interpretive metaphors, such as the moment Moe details the fish he found in the bilge of his boat. Nobody (including Moe himself) can fathom how a fish could have gotten there; Moe insists that it isn’t about how it got there, but the significance lies in the very nature of the fish being there at all. This seems to be an implication of Moe’s isolation (or fish-out-of-water-ness) as a Native American adopted into the marina life. For Moe, the fish appears to be a significant component in motivating his departure from this life to one more faithful to his own culture and religion, as he decides to head back into the water and sail upstream.
Chad is clearly the main character, and as a recent college graduate, a divorcee, and a man searching for himself, he’s relatable on many levels. Unfortunately, he’s often lost in the alternating of points-of-view—and with upwards of a dozen characters, this happens a lot. While each character Friesen manipulates is no less interesting than the next, I wanted to hear the major events of the story filtered through Chad, rather than cycle through the eyes of each character. I craved development for Chad, but this took time.
I enjoyed every character’s unique path because Friesen fuels their motivations with authentic fretfulness and surprising reactions, but several of them only directly interact with one or two of the other main characters. Coupled with the shifts in POV, it made for a relatively uneven narrative and lessened the impact of many of the greatest events.
Despite the issues, the book is a success because of the passion behind the prose. Simple moments are turned into religious experiences in the blink of an eye, like Barry’s concerned empty fuel tank turning into a blessed sailing trip that presented him with an abundant river of flying Coho, a fish thought to be endangered.
Even with the waterfall of sound, he felt peace and a great fullness in his chest. There was music in the wind. A song that played in the sails and jib sheets and whatever it was that pulled him upstream. The din of traffic from the highway blended with the crashing of the water, but there was music in that, too. What he could only think of as a violent peace had taken hold of him, as if peace were not silent at all but rather a wild, roaring blessedness.
Even Jack, the ancient aggressor of the Marina, has some poetry to offer with his wisdom in the rare moments he isn’t paroxysmal:
Sometimes a line is all that stands between you and the chaos that the wind and the river can bring. It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your boat is. If you don’t have lines, you’re fucked. You’ve got no way of tying yourself off to anything, and life on the water just isn’t possible unless you’re hanging on to something else, whether it’s a dock or an anchor or your own damn balls. Without the line, you’re just drifting.
Brian K. Friesen’s At the Waterline is pervaded with rot, knots, and rust. It shimmers with history and knowledge from experience and shared tales. It’s about the people at the waterline, how they treat each other, and how they treat themselves. It shows us how the marina life both bolsters and degrades you. Above all, it’s a story of running away, living in stagnation somewhere in between life and death, and finding a way to leave it safely behind you in the wake of foam.