If, as Jim Lynch proposes, the sailboat is the ultimate erotic symbol for men, his novel Before the Wind is pornography, as eager to titillate as to seduce. It’s the story of a family obsessed with sailing, preferably sailing at top speed.
“Strains of this gentle madness course through my family the way diabetes or alcoholism clusters in others,” says the narrator, Josh, a boat repairman who understands how wacky this obsession may seem to landlubbers. “Running a boatyard is like working in a dementia clinic,” he observes. “We commiserate with comforting nods and winces. We play cameos in dreams and delusions.”
With self-deprecating wit and a robust but bashful intellect, Josh tells the story of three generations of Johannssens: their Icelandic origin (they may or may not be descendants of Leif Eriksson, depending on who’s telling the story); their extraordinary skill in boat-building; their prowess on the racing circuit; and their ferocious love for one another, which at times is a bit too savage. The father, Bobo, could be called a disciplinarian, or a jerk. Josh calls him “a leader and a lout, a gentleman and an ass, he never concedes a weakness, admits a sickness or says he loves anybody. Yet the flip side is that when you do please him, your body temperature climbs a degree or two.”
The father taught Josh and his siblings, Bernard and Ruby, to sail. Not that they had any choice. The boys were named after men who had written books about sailing, and were required to read them. (Here the fiction gives way to fact: Joshua Slocum and Bernard Moitessier were, in fact, legendary sailors and authors.) The Johannssen children grew up in the Pacific Northwest speaking the language of sailors; words like “halyards,” “starboard” and “hard alee” are perfunctorily explained in a glossary of sorts embedded in the second chapter for nautical illiterates.
“Sailing is praying in our family,” Ruby tells a Girl Scout leader, which explains why the family didn’t have time for church. They were out on the water, where Bobo and his colorful father, Grumps, gleefully instructed the children in races against each other.
There’s a mother in the family, too: a high-school physics professor who found a link between her love (science and mathematics) and her husband’s passion for sailing: Albert Einstein, who never learned to drive or swim but was a good sailor who loved spending weekends on the water with his sister. “Mother might have understood Einstein better than she did us and never passed up an opportunity to explain and extol him,” Josh says.
In other hands, the frequent Einstein asides, as well as Mother Johannssen’s frequent soliloquies on famous theorems and the genesis of wind, could feel like a book-lengthening device, or a desperate attempt to sow gravitas into a thin, weedy plot. Here, it simply charms. The Johannssens are both Kennedy and Kardashian, possessing a brash nobility with a hint of dysfunction, so winsome that it seems rude to call them “characters” — they’re people, like us, but for the breathing.
Therefore, it doesn’t really matter what they do in these pages; once Joshua introduces Grumps, who invokes pagan gods at every opportunity; or Noah, the preacher’s son from Boring, Oregon (yes, there is such a place; motto: “An exciting place to live and work!”), who does a mean Morgan Freeman impression and wanders around intoning solemnly about penguins, we’d be happy to come along if they were only watching paint dry. But there is a traditional arc: The quirky family has mysteriously splintered, but they hurtle together from unexpected places, drawn by the irresistible magnet of (of course) a boat race.
Non-sailors may find Before the Wind unnavigable in places; its author grew up sailing, and parts of the book are autobiographical. (His father, like Josh’s, told him that Republicans are power boaters, and Democrats sailors.) Those who learn a language later in life often struggle to understand the native and fluent, but those who make the effort here will have new friends. The Johannssens are people worth knowing. A-