- Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones
Cynan Jones is one of those authors regularly categorized as a “masculine” writer alongside iconic “masculine” writers like Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Raymond Carver. It’s true that his protagonists are men struggling with aspects of literal or symbolic virility, whose thoughts feel wringed from a practically dry sponge, driven to weary immorality by a desperate desire to be greater than they are. Coffee House Press’s republishing of Jones’s sophomore novel, Everything I Found on the Beach, however, is a great reminder of the limitations of traditional reviewing categories. The story, as much as it is the rugged adventure toward an impossible future of The Road or The Sun Also Rises, is also a domestic thriller about a society’s people unable to cope with change.
As with The Long Dry and The Dig (also republished by Coffee House last year), Everything I Found on the Beach is the story of a laborer struggling with a dwindling income. Grzegorz is a Polish immigrant who, once a farmer, becomes disenchanted with the idea of upward mobility when confronted with the bureaucracy of his slaughterhouse job. Those encountering present defeats tend to reflect, and reflect Grzegorz does, on those Polish “farms . . . [that] had survived the Russians, the Germans, and Communism, but could not beat this simple mathematical annihilation.” It’s an annihilation that also overwhelms the novel’s other protagonist, Hold, a Welsh fisherman with dreams of owning his own boat while having his dead friend’s family to care for. Most of Hold’s time, early in the novel, is reasonably spent gutting fish and meditating on how to care for his friend’s family, just as most of Grzegorz’s time is spent in much the same way, except with cows instead of fish. All this ruminating, unlike in Jones’s preceding and following novels, turns his methodical style into a small labor. At times it plods.
Those encountering present defeats also tend to see ethics less palpably than the cozy, however, and once all this thoughtfulness is sidelined for substantive response, we get the scenes of brutal beauty that are familiar to Jones. Hold remembers the death flail of one of his first shot rabbits as “if it was on a string held by some sick god,” promptly before he shoots a rabbit with “it[s] back leg kicking automatically out in the final statement of its instinct like some unwound spring.” In a single sequence, the evolution of a man’s moral stance is proposed, giving strength to the plot’s locomotion. Hold finds a dead man—beautifully revealed, after the discovery, as Grzegorz—in a dead-in-the-water boat with packets of cocaine. Packets he then places inside the shot rabbits [End Page 169] (symbols of this moral arc) so that they “seemed to reconstitute their missing shape like they underwent some backwards act of resurrection.” All of this comes across not as the unfolding of a storyline but as a fated revelation. Hold must help Danny’s family survive somehow; that’s a feeling Grzegorz likely shared about his own.
Unlike The Long Dry and The Dig, this novel has a third important character. The antithesis to the Pole and the Welshman is an Irish thug by the name of Stringer who feels double-crossed by his old comrades and will do whatever it requires to get the power he feels he deserves. He’s a flat character, monomaniacal, whose entire substance seems to be in the Dickensian irony of describing him as priest-like with an Of Mice and Men-style relationship with a mob bruiser identified only as “the big man.” Even here the irony is pervasive. The big man is hierarchically small, and closer in kind to the characters who die in his habit of reflecting on the changed nature of the criminal underground. Not to mention his comic introduction, when his excessively Irish mother demands that he and “his friend,” Stringer, stay until she can pack him sandwiches. In their dark way, Stringer...