Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal by Keith ThomsonIt was the tabloid blast of the blurb that got me: “Cat food cannery worker Gus Openshaw has a whale to kill.” Amateur revenge and cat food canning sounded like a recipe for hijinks, tomfoolery and silliness, the perfect antidote to the when-the-fuck-is-spring-going-to-get-here blues. Another good sign was that Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal was short`listed for the Lulu Blooker Prize, an online prize for blogs lucky enough to get turned into books, including some excellent writing. Finally, the chance to read a modern take on a notoriously difficult American classic piqued my interest even further. I wanted to read Moby Dick without the pain.
But pain is what I got. Pain, Polish jokes, and more god-awful punnery than you can shake the entire Modern Classics library at. Seriously, Polish jokes. When a book sets itself up with a bland main character, a score of one note supporters, and a plot of revenge so hackneyed that you would forget the motivation of the main character if it weren’t repeated every two or three pages (seriously, again), apparently old-timey ethnic slurs are on the top tier of the writer’s toolbox.
Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal’s self-identification as a modern Moby Dick bludgeons the reader, and Thomson’s allying himself with Herman Melville is embarrassing. The accidental Captain Ahab Gus Openshaw, becomes enraged after a freak whale attack leaves him without his wife, child and arm. After creating a whaling crew out of a homicidal cook, a religious strongman, a drug addict, a pirate and an idiot (cleverly named Stupid George), writes on his mysteriously Internet-enabled laptop blog entries that gain a worldwide following. In an example of Thomson’s use of subtlety, Gus calls the whale “Dickhead” and seems confused when he gets tons of comments asking if Dickhead is white. Any imaginative element, like the island lair of Dealer Dan, a crazy arms dealer, gets buried under similar attempts at humor that feel like a singularly untalented ten-year-old’s attempt at sketch comedy.
In what I assume is an effort to keep the original blog’s fans happy, the book retains the blog entry structure. Each chapter is only a few pages long and ends with a cliffhanger usually so absurd that, instead of creating anticipation for the next chapter, it causes a flash of rage at both the characters and the author. Also ending each chapter is a scrimshaw of something that happened in the previous pages. Though a scrimshaw is usually an intricate scene carved onto some kind of bone matter, the scrimshaws of Gus Openshaw are line drawings that get magically uploaded into Gus’s entries. They are at first a break from the terribleness of the narrative, then they become just part of the mess.
Once it becomes clear that the book isn’t going to become a different book, the last two thirds required grudge-reading mode -- plowing through the pages, just to get the book finished. In fairness, Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal might have been a slightly more interesting read as a blog. Waiting on the new entries may have given the ridiculous cliffhanger structure some zing, and the lunch-hour distraction quotient of the blogosphere would have been filled. Now that trees have been felled to put this story on shelves, the writing-assignment quality of this book is so blazingly apparent that the question isn’t “Will Openshaw get his whale?” but “how heinous was the threat against the publisher’s life and/or family that allowed his book to be?”
Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal by Keith Thomson