Just after Puttnum is born, his father, Carl, considers breaking his neck to spare him the disappointments of life. At the same time, he wishes for his son to embody certain masculine ideals and make him proud. When Puttnum is seven, he tries to do exactly that by throwing a rock into a boy’s face at a pool party, putting the boy’s eye out. Instead of pleasing his father, he has horrified Carl, and their relationship proceeds in a similar fashion throughout the novel. Puttnum, going from confused adolescent to angry young man to even more confused adult, wars internally with his desire to wear women’s clothing and his need to prove his masculinity to his father and the world. In this book, Jonathan Scott Fuqua takes a close look at the effect both damaging parents and a psyche outside of the norm can have on the life of a well-intentioned and smart man.
One thing that I appreciate the most in a novel is a great character that grows and develops throughout the whole work. With In the Wake of the Boatman, I got exactly that, as Puttnum was a wonderful character. This book is driven by his life and very little else, but it didn’t matter, because I was rooting for him and I wanted him to get past his problems. Puttnum is confused, but his confusion is understandable and carefully laid out, developing as he grows. It’s fairly easy to see that his identity problems are wrapped up with his idealization of his sister, a beautiful girl who has never had any problems dealing with either of their parents, but that doesn’t lessen his journey there.
Even though I have always been perfectly content with my gender, I found it easy to relate to Puttnum’s confusion and struggle with identity, because almost everyone is uncertain about who they are at some point in their lives. He chooses to enter the army to prove his masculinity, but he knows the army is not the right place for him. He struggles with where to go afterwards. He spends most of his life not fitting in. All of these are problems that so many face, and Fuqua handles his character and issues in such a way that he is a genuine person, multi-faceted and actually interesting.
The other characters are unhappy, too. Despite feeling emotions and having impulses that would ease his family, Carl is never able to express them. Puttnum’s sister Mary marries a man too similar to her father to ever achieve happiness; despite being Puttnum’s ideal, she has many problems of her own. Puttnum’s mother, while perhaps the most content of the lot, grows tired and grey over the course of the novel. Yet the book itself is not sad, but ends on a sweetly hopeful note, without real resolution but with inspiration for the future of these characters we grow to love. If Puttnum can discover who he is and be happy with it, perhaps the rest of us can, too.
In short, I really enjoyed In the Wake of the Boatman. It’s a thoughtful, moving read that had me engaged from start to finish.