Some Hellish by Nicholas Herring

The title of this books makes me think of the social media memes that ask you to indicate where you’re from without saying where you’re from. Usually they do this with pictures, but local phrases and sayings could work nicely too. Some Hellish is set in Prince Edward Island, where it’s common to hear people say things like: “It’s some good!.. Some windy out today,” or in this case, “Some hellish.” (FYI, Nova Scotians use these phrases, too.)

“Some hellish” is also a descriptor for the lives of some of the characters in this book, including the protagonist Herring and his good buddy Gerry. Herring’s wife has recently left him–the hole he cut in the living room floor to make it easier to get to the wood furnace in the basement was the last straw–taking their two girls with her. He doesn’t know why he cut that hole – he regrets cutting the hole. But, really, it sounds like it was only a matter of time anyway. Herring has been drinking and drugging heavily, along with his friend Gerry, and now that he’s alone during the day, it pretty much goes on all day long. To make matters worse, they see no reason not to drive around that way. In fact, everyone and their dog seems to drive drunk in this community, which I hope isn’t a reflection of reality.

Then a blackness would come, a kind of slag, and it would overwhelm him. He would see that he was tired of himself, and he would desire only the destruction of everything before and around him.

Herring and Gerry nearly kill themselves a couple of times, but then comes the day when Herring really goes for it by falling over the side of his fishing boat and disappearing.

It was utter neglect and dazzling stupidity.

Herring is a lobster fisherman, as are many of the book’s characters. A lot of time is spent fussing with traps, drinking, tidying up the wharf, smoking, taking the piss with each other, drinking and smoking and going for a drive in their trucks. It takes weeks of work leading up to the first day of lobster season. Then they head out early in the morning, drink and smoke, check the traps, drop the traps, drink and smoke, check the traps, drop the traps, drink and smoke, repeat over several more times. Is it any wonder Herring eventually falls over the side? Sometimes they joke around. Sometimes they argue. Sometimes they have intelligent things to say, sometimes not so much.

But it’s always entertaining listening to them, and this reader grew very attached.

If a man could buy a plug for his arsehole, Gerry would be the first in line. It was about half-three and he’d yet to even piss today, “I’m some dry today,” he said. “I spose that when I get home I’ll just shit like a camel. My guts’ll come outta me in less than five minutes and then I’ll just crack right open like I’m driftwood, I’m so dry.”

Besides Herring–who has “curly red lappets” of hair and is “suspicious of happiness”–and Gerry–whose smile is dotted with missing teeth–there are other colourful characters. Bobby Sorry lives with his mother in a house that smells of “cigarettes, manure, and mould.” Red John has three moles on his neck that people refer to as “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Big Arbott Herring rides his bicycle around because his license has been revoked for life. Rather than “guzzling with enthusiasm” like many of his family members, Little Arbott Herring took to “lecturing with gusto.” And Willy Lyon MacKenzie “didn’t believe in electricity.”

Some Hellish is sort of a fishing version of Fearnoch (which was farming). Mostly male characters, written by men, characters who grow up in a traditional way of life, flawed but easy to like and root for. We want them to triumph, but are aware that the story is rooted in reality which does not usually end in happily-ever-after. I hoped for the best anyway, and did not go away disappointed with what I got. As Alexander MacLeod says of Some Hellish, “The clarity and the quality of the writing, so stark and so pure, should be enough — there are single lines you will read over and over — but Nicholas Herring also has a larger poetic vision, equal parts physical and philosophical, that first takes in this whole world, then tenderly holds it together.

In truth, Gerry had no idea what they were doing, but he stood beside Herring nevertheless and tried to appear just as stoic, the easterly seeming to grow thicker and denser by the moment,, blocked into the frame of their chests, as resistant as the anvil. They did this every year, or at least for as far back as he could recall, and he didn’t want to ask the man what on earth they were supposed to be doing, lest he sort of break the spell of things. Maybe pointing out the obvious would kill the feeling, you see. It wasn’t too much to stand by the the fellow and be quiet and look like you were contemplating the whole of recorded history. Their bellies were full, besides, and there were assorted beers at hand, some Alpine and some Budweiser.

It was a nice day. A lovely Saturday. Things were going good. Herring was happy. He knew it. So he just slowed it down and everything was smooth. A trap would come up through the sea, silently and without any commotion, as if this displacement was the natural order of things, the ash from their cigarettes flaked out on the surface of the water, like the seasoning on some infinite soup, and he would catch the knot and slow her down, turn her back off, stop her. The traps were teeming with lobsters.

Best moment (slightly spoiler-y): When Herring went into the library and said “I’d like to learn how to think.” and the librarian gave him Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro. “He was shaking with excitement. He flipped it open to a random page and read a sentence, without knowing anything about what was going on or who was who. He read, “She made efforts one after the other. She set little blocks on top of one another and she had a day. Sometimes she could almost not do this. At other times the very deliberateness, the seeming arbitrariness, of what she was doing, the way she was living, exhilarated her.”

Bonus moment: A quick shout-out to Alma, New Brunswick and their amazing sticky buns.

The Real Deal

Further Reading:

Some Hellish is a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Jury Citation: “What Cormac McCarthy did for cowboys and horses, Nicholas Herring does for fishermen and boats in his novel Some Hellish. With a deep knowledge of the Island and a passion for the language of work, Herring’s voice is droll and philosophical, ribald and poetic. The age-old story of humans versus nature finds a fresh cadence as Herring trawls the seas for body and soul. There is a dark beauty within this story, and it will make the reader’s heart sing.

The Winnipeg Free Press:His book’s style and sweep, its metaphorical richness and rhetorical beauty, come from some splendid place that must only exist in his mind, a place where Shakespeare becomes the new bass player for Metallica and speaks with a curious Atlantic-Canadian accent, telling loud, sacrilegious, frequently offensive jokes, none of which can be reproduced here. Nicholas Herring is a major writer, and Some Hellish is a brilliant and head-spinning debut.”

Nicholas Herring on The Next Chapter: “I wanted to write something that was entertaining; something that was beautiful and truthful and difficult. I really wanted to write something that was kind of like life — as I see it at this moment in time.”

Thank you to Goose Lane for sending me a copy of this book!

In case you’ve always wanted to see a lobster trap Christmas tree.

16 thoughts on “Some Hellish by Nicholas Herring

  1. wadholloway says:

    Books just about guys are not my cup of tea. I know how guys work, I want to understand how women work (hint: I never will). In passing, Atlantic coast fisherman don’t sound much different from northern Australian fishermen (except warmer water, sharks, crocodiles).

    • Naomi says:

      Even though I’m more familiar with women (because I am one!), I’m also much more likely to read about them. Which makes a book about men a nice change every once in a while.

      We do get some sharks but never crocodiles. That would add some extra excitement if you fell in. But at least, with the warmer water, there would be less worry about hypothermia!

  2. Karissa says:

    This sounds interesting! The east coast of Canada is so different from the west coast and yet the fishing and the types of men who work in it are very reminiscent of things I see here too.

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