Everything I Found on the Beach, by Cynan Jones. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, April 2016. 248 pages. $15.95, paper.
It is possible to say that Everything I Found on the Beach is a novel of rabbits. They enter, innocuously enough, as food; the restaurant manager of a seaside hotel asks Hold, his fishmonger, if he can hunt down a dozen or so for the kitchen. Before the hunt, Hold tries to convince the mother of his dead friend’s only child that the boy might like to come with him. In this moment, the rabbits turn into ritual: a means of exploring the passage between childhood and adulthood, and of understanding the crush of responsibility on the other side. “He’s old enough now,” Hold tells the boy’s mother. “He wouldn’t shoot. He’d just walk with me. It might even put him off, seeing it. It does some people. He’s not going to let go of it otherwise.”
But the boy stays asleep in his bed, and Hold, alone in the hills with his rifle and his thoughts, sees the rabbits transform again. In the memory of his own first hunt, the animals become totems of horror—what Hold really meant when he said that the boy, whose interest in “it” is untempered by reality, might be “put off” by bearing witness:
He shot the furthest one and it balled to the ground and went still and then he shot the second one mid-leap and it hit the soil and squealed and bucked into the air and he watched it as it hit the ground and volleyed again horribly into the air over and over, writhing and leaping down the field as if it was on a string held by some sick god, the way we dangle a toy for a cat. And he cracked open the gun and shook as he rushed for more cartridges walking almost hypnotized towards the rabbit, and he swallowed in the horror of it with some bizarre pragmatism he did not know he had.
And then the rabbit was on the ground and it kicked up scuffs of soil it loosened as it fought and he leveled the gun and just held it there, sick with his own heartbeat, not knowing whether to fire or not, then the rabbit went still. The space around it was smashed and all the barley shoots were ripped out.
He collected the two rabbits and took them down and the old farmer showed him how to skin them and he never told anyone about the puppet rabbit.
Finally, when the hunt culminates with the discovery of a kilo of cocaine in three tight packages in a dead man’s boat on the beach, Hold guts his rabbit corpses, stuffs the drugs inside, and sews them back up. The corrupted bodies are, at last, wholly superficial, the mere means to a breathless end. Hold will turn the drugs into a chosen future. Everything else, no matter how important it had been, is secondary. “It’s fallen to you,” he thinks, by way of justification. “You kind of asked for something like this. You have to take it on now.” And then, in part to so he’ll remember what his choice requires, Hold commits a second irreversible act: he severs his own fishing nets, the thing he’d gone to the beach to check in the first place, the other symbol of his daily toil. As he does it, Hold feels “something almost religious … like he had broken some sanctity and that he had cut much more than the net in doing this thing.”
It is largely because of unexpected and logical transformations like these, when natural things are made perverse, that Everything I Found on the Beach is one of the most quietly violent novels you will ever read. Jones offers gorgeous observation of nature’s indifference to human intervention, and juxtaposes it with characters who define themselves by their inability to influence the manmade systems by which they are held in check. There is no hope—until there is. Selling the cocaine back to its dealers is Hold’s chance to get his own fishing boat, and with it his own business, and with that business the ability to care for his dead friend’s family and the right to call it his own. Ferrying the cocaine across the sea in a boat he lied about his ability to captain is the only escape for Grzegorz, a Polish immigrant to the UK, who has just welcomed his second son into a marred by prejudice and helpless poverty. And Stringer, the bitter Irish thug who festers like a salted wound over what he feels is a lack of respect from his organization, decides to grab the cocaine he’s been tasked with recovering and turn it into a criminal enterprise of his own—to become boss in the only sense of the word that he knows.
Given this cocaine MacGuffin, you might expect Everything I Found on the Beach to display far less restraint. But this possibility—of a purposeful violence, one intended only to eclipse the systems holding these characters in check—exists on nearly every page. Even patience, sometimes watchful, sometimes simmering, becomes a powerful threat. Characters who’ve been reduced to appetite are the crucial element in a successful noir. That reduction often makes for a straightforward, even simple plot. It’s the case here; and, again, its simplicity is one of this novel’s supreme strengths. In fact, Jones’ skillfully reductive use of drugs for story and expansive employment of a three-headed narrative for structure call to mind another bare-bones literary thriller, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. (Indeed, McCarthy is the author to whom Jones, in his American reviews at least, is most often compared.)
Consider, however, that where No Country for Old Men is a high-speed cat-and-mouse game in which the criminal is always one step ahead of the bumbling hero and the lawman is never closer than two steps behind, Everything I Found on the Beach is not and doesn’t ever truly threaten to turn into a chase. The two elements that might bring one about—Hold discovering the drugs, and the criminals wanting them back—instead arrange a resolution in what appears, initially, to be the most civil manner possible. Hold will meet Stringer in a semi-public place, return the bundles, and get a handful of money for his trouble. In the meantime, no one taps Hold’s phone. Nobody tails him. Nor does Hold plan a surprise, or an ambush, or a feint. It’s a one-for-one exchange, gone about with minimal fuss. These criminals run a business, after all. And businesses, we learn in a handful of brief scenes involving Stringer’s boss, require maximal efficiency. (The fact that Stringer does what villains do once the exchange has been made is only incidental. The business has gotten the better of everyone else; it will catch up with him, too.)
Instead, this novel’s depictions are largely internal. Its characters yearn for a surprise to rescue them, and prepare to take advantage of it as much as they dream about how things will improve once they have. In the meantime, as Grzegorz puts it, “Life stays the same, relatively. Unless you get one big chance to get yourself ahead, properly ahead, then it just stays the same.” Under such a guiding principle, there can be no chase: these characters don’t propel each another forward; they move independently, in a synchronicity only the reader can see. As their isolation increases, and their needs overlap, they’re drawn together, in orbit around the same whirlpool. And when the surprise does come, they each grab hold, falling out of orbit: and in.
John Brown Spiers lives in California’s Central Valley. He spins plots.