Fred Waitzkin’s 2019 novella Deep Water Blues has the feel of someone leisurely telling a simple modern-day sea saga about betrayal, violence and sharks amid a tropical paradise of cobalt skies and beautiful vistas.
It’s as if a big-city, white-collar guy who likes sport fishing is sitting across the table from you at the end of, say, a wedding reception. If you’re one of the multitudes who live for sailing in the brisk clear sunshine, you’re enthralled. If you’re a landlubber, it’s like a visit to another world.
Waitzkin — a New York writer known for his memoir about his chess prodigy son Searching for Bobby Fisher — is no bore although, like many a teller of such tales, he’s not averse to going off on a tangent about himself and even about other stories in the midst of his yarn.
Not bogged down
In this case, Deep Water Blues is short enough that Waitzkin never gets bogged down anywhere long enough. It’s only about 140 pages of text, divided into eight parts and an epilogue.
Waitzkin needs so many parts for so few pages because he alternates his story about Bobby Little, the mover-shaker and live wire who is the ruling spirit of the tiny Rum Cay in the Bahamas, with a separate account of his sailing/fishing trip there with three real-life friends.
Actually, Bobby Little is a real-life person, too, still on the island. One of Waitzkin’s real-life friends on the trip is John Mitchell who provided about a dozen sketches for the book, including portraits of Waitzkin and Bobby. And it seems that Bobby’s sidekick in the story, for most of the way at least, Rasta, is a real-life person since he’s thanked in the Acknowledgements.
This can be confusing for a reader. The question is often: Is this plot twist something that actually happened or did Waitzkin make it up?
For instance, did Waitzkin and Mitchell and two other friends actually sail to Rum Cay only to find it destroyed when they arrived? Did the overcrowded boat of Haitian refugees really flip over near the cay, leaving dozens of people to be preyed on by sharks? Did Bobby Little save many of them?
And, then, there’s the heart of the novella: Did Bobby have a showdown with his erstwhile partner Dennis that had a deadly conclusion?
Not the first
My guess is that most of the characters in Deep Water Blues are real-life people, but not Dennis. No last name is given for him. He’s described vaguely as somebody in construction in Chicago.
There was, I suspect, a Dennis, but he wasn’t called Dennis and he wasn’t from Chicago.
I’m guessing that something like the story Waitzkin tells did actually happen. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Deep Water Blues is a kind of memoir/history that the author has dolled up as fiction to protect himself or simply to streamline the story.
Of course, if Waitzkin did fictionalize real events, he wouldn’t be the first teller of sea stories to do so.
Patrick T. Reardon