Picks and Pans Review: Fishboy

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mark Richard

Written in vigorous prose at once comic, majestic and rife with menace, this first novel is a surreal voyage of the damned, an inverse morality tale about the impossibility of redemption.

Richard's improbable hero is a lisping, pinch-toed orphan called Fishboy. Cast off at birth into the slime and muck under a pier-side fishery, Fishboy spends his days in service to the black fish cutters, one of whom, Big Miss Magine, taunts him so ritually that he one day plunges his shell shucker's knife into her belly. Believing he has killed her, Fishboy stows away on a boat he soon learns is crewed by freaks and miscreants.

To survive, Fishboy puts in with his shipmates, among them a tattooed giant, a homicidal pederast, an idiot and a man whose whole body is literally turned inside out. He also puts up with the crew's atrocities—from spitting into the soup to murder—until one by one they die or are killed off and a giant wave (God's hand or the work of the devil?) delivers him back to the fishery pier. From here, Fishboy, wrapped in sharkskin and near death, is taken home by the sister of the ailing Big Miss Magine to meet his final fate.

Author of the short-story collection The Ice at the Bottom of the World, which won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award in 1990, Richard tells this "ghost's story," as the novel is subtitled, with inspired guts and lunatic grace. The bleak moral vision and the dazzling chiaroscuro of his highly poetic, Old Testament-cadenced prose echoes back to the myth-laden, seafaring tales of Conrad and Melville. But the body-hacked, soul-stripped patina of Fishboy's gruesome and antic canvas seems more the child of the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's nightmare renderings. At the end of these brilliant, blood-soaked pages, the reader feels lucky to have arrived in one piece. (Double-day, $19.95)

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