Fisherman’s Beach

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Talk about a catch of the day. How about netting 175 remaindered copies of George Vukelich’s masterful 1962 Wisconsin novel, Fisherman’s Beach, selling for ninety-eight cents each on the bargain table at the UW Bookstore at Hilldale in Madison. Originally published by St. Martin’s Press, the novel was reprinted in 1990 under Vukelich’s own North Country Press imprint, which is the edition UW Bookstore is selling.

It seems likely that Vukelich, who died in 1995 at 67, had access to St. Martin’s original printer’s plates. There’s a striking use of pen and ink seagull silhouettes on the cover, title page and chapter headings, as well as a small fish icon beside each page number. It’s the kind of elegant layout and textual design that was common enough in 1962 when publishers had in-house graphic designers, but seems like a classical lost art form today.

The story of a struggling Catholic fishing clan—Old Man LeMere, his wife, and five sons—on the shores of Lake Michigan, Fisherman’s Beach manages vivid characters across generations and is written in an assured naturalistic style that hasn’t aged and probably never will:

They spent half an hour getting the tug ready for the run out to the fish grounds. Out of the shanty gear shack came the empty fish boxes they hoped to fill by noon. Raphael and Gabriel lugged these aboard while Roger gassed up the tug and Germaine carried out the foul-weather gear. They moved quickly, quietly, anxious to have the joework over with and be underway. Once they cleared the dock, they could relax and smoke during the seven-mile run back up the coast to the nets. Now there were hundreds of pounds of ice to be put aboard and steel oil drums into which they could fling the trout guts when they cleaned them on the way back. The offal would be sold to the area farmers. It wasn’t much but every little penny helped now.

The plot is set in motion when the oldest son, 35-year-old Germaine, returns home to Wisconsin from living abroad after the Second World War. Unbeknownst to his family, Germaine is a widower with a 5-year-old daughter. Old sibling rivalries resurface. A former girlfriend—currently dating Germaine’s brother Roger—enters the picture. The family business is threatened by politicians in Madison considering legislative limitations on commercial fishing.

Nestled within the larger narrative of Fisherman’s Beach is a beautifully evoked coming of age tale of ten-year-old Reuben LeMere. It’s a chilling moment when Reuben receives a 22-calibre rifle for his eleventh birthday, and, tiring of target practice with tin cans, begins “to want to kill something.” In the grip of bloodlust, he recklessly fires at seagulls overhead.

Then he jerked the trigger and the rifle moved a little and the wind carried away the noise of the shot so it sounded almost flat. The gull he had aimed at was still flying and starting to sweep away and he knew he had missed. He pulled back the bolt and the empty smoking shell spun out, end over end: he could smell the smell of burnt powder. The shot didn’t seem to scare the gulls away although most of them had risen now and were twisting over the rocks like pieces of paper caught in an air current. He had loaded up and was aiming again when he heard the shout. He lowered the rifle. It was a big dark man in a blue shirt leaning out of a window in the lighthouse and hollering at him. The wind was blowing away most of what the man was saying but Reuben could hear two words very clearly. “Goddamn you!” the man was yelling. “Goddamn you!”

Fisherman’s Beach is George Vukelich’s only novel. He had a long career as a journalist and essayist and radio host in Madison. He published two strong collections of his essays, North Country Notebook, Vol. I (1987) and Vol. II (1992). There’s a useful biographical sketch of Vukelich in James Roberts’ 2002 book, Famous Wisconsin Authors (online at Google Books).

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