Peter Markus’ Bob, or Man on Boat
This book is the most curious novel I’ve ever met. It strikes me as a lovely long prose poem, but it claims doggedly to be a novel. Call it what you will, it’s fun. I read it in just a few hours one evening, and I’m still trying to process all of its magical, almost allegorical, language.
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is a story about Bob. The protagonist is Bob, his father and his son are Bob, his boat is Bob, the river is Bob. It begins with a straightforward introduction in a quirky see-Spot-run sort of cadence:
In a boat, on a river, lived a man.
It’s what Bob did.
All of the time.
Fish. And fish.
Sometimes, Bob ate the fish. But most of the time, what Bob did with the fish was, Bob sold the fish.
It’s how Bob lived.
A boat. A river.
Look at Bob’s hands. His knuckles are rivers. The skin on Bob’s hands, fish-scaled covered, they look like they’ve been dipped in stars.
And so it continues in beautiful sing-song poetry, to craft a story about this riverman named Bob, the son he doesn’t know exists, and the maddening obsession that won’t let either of them rest. One critic called it a modern retelling of Moby-Dick. It certainly shares some key elements — fish vs. fisherman, megalomania — but I find it’s more about fathers and sons than about the ubiquitous fish. Shit gets real about 30 pages in, when the narrator, Bob’s son Bob, asks his mother about her decision not to tell the father about his son:
Why didn’t you ever tell him? I asked my mother once.
Why, in other words, didn’t you give Bob a chance to be my father?
I was young, my mother said.
She said she was afraid.
Of what he would do.
What would he do, did you think?
I was afraid, my mother said, that he’d take you down to the river.
What I wanted to know was, What would be so wrong with that?
In a sack, my mother said, and she looked me straight in the eye.
In a sack tied tight with twine.
In a sack filled up with bricks.
The poet Dan Beachy-Quick wrote an incredibly beautiful blurb for Dzanc. He writes:
Here, in this river-world, where every character with a name is named Bob, where men turn into fish, where fish turn into men, where magic works darkly in the mud, where boys turn into their fathers, where dreams reveal the world, where the stars swim in the sky’s river, where hands are covered in fish scales, where the river sings to us of our origins and of our ends, to see is to baptize the mind in the river. Markus’ world is not old because it never ceased living in wonder. It is a mythic world and ever-new. When Markus sings his voice is chorus. Melville’s Ahab is in there. So is Hawthorne. So are the Brothers Grimm. So are Faulkner and Jung. But those voices return to, and harmonize with, some deeper, more sonorous Anonymity, that bodiless voice which utters every story, whose voice is itself a river, and who chooses, among countless thousands, one humble mouth to sing its story through. That voice is spoken for us by Peter Markus. And this novel is one of those songs.