Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Don’t call him Ishmael; John Jacobs is named for the son of Abraham’s other, more privileged son. His privilege is to be a white man in the twenty-first century, though then he swabs his mouth and sends off his DNA for ancestral heritage testing, discovers that he’s part Inuit, which information leads to a plot that nods, repeatedly, to that of Moby-Dick.
Maybe “nods” is the wrong word; I don’t want to imply anything like subtly. Minichillo’s book bangs its head repeatedly against Moby-Dick, or at least the SparkNotes to that book. The “tribal representative and acting chief” of the people with whom John Jacobs shares some trace of genetics writes to the white man with the following advice on preparing for his journey north: “I recommend Moby-Dick by one Herman Melville, because you are trying to live some kind of fiction. All cultural studies, language dictionaries, and documentaries take the dominant white viewpoint.” Heavy-handed? Weighty as a whale.
There is, indeed, a white whale, believed to be the cause of a curse not unrelated to white privilege and the wanton waste of resources and wasting of the environment. There is a black filmmaker who calls himself Q, our neo-Ishmael’s companion. There is a captain, relentlessly set on his goal, a “reckless ex-chief who defied God and everyone else.” There is even a preacher, preaching on Jonah, though he, too, has been updated. “Anybody here watch Shark Week?” he asks.
The problem with writing a novel tied so intimately to another, far greater novel, is that the lesser, newer novel can seem kitschy and trite, so much cotton candy and jokes about “desk doodles,” “corporate novelties,” which is what the plastics corporation white John Jacobs works for manufactures. Before he goes on a whale hunt, gets swallowed by a whale, finds himself, and lands a job at REI. This is no Moby-Dick, and since our time in this mortal plane is brief, readers would be better served reading Moby-Dick again. The Snow Whale, as eager to be clever and cute and thoughtful as it is, emphasizes, through its constant references to Melville’s masterwork, how insufficient it is. Ahab would never say, “Your coming means I don’t have to occupy myself with Law & Order reruns.”
Official John Minichillo Web Site
Official Atticus Books Web Site