Book Review: Down at the Docks

Down at the Docks by Rory Nugent

I don’t feel worthy of reviewing a masterpiece such as Down at the Docks, but I will give it a try.  Rory Nugent has perfectly captured the lingo, ambiance, and pathos of the waterfront in New Bedford, MA.   Alec Wilkinson said this about Down at the Docks, “No writer I can think of, unless it is Sebastian Junger, could have written this obsessed, intrepid and intelligent book…”  I disagree with part of this; only Nugent could have written this book; it is not even close.  Near the beginning of the book, Nugent writes about an unpleasant encounter he had with a belligerent wharf rat named “Sword” in a dockside dive bar called the National Club.  Nugent, the ultimate survivor, was able to wiggle out of his difficult situation unscathed.  I suspect that Junger, or me for that matter, would not have fared as well, and the story would have ended right there.

Nugent is uniquely qualified to write this book because of the street cred he had with the tough seaside crowd in New Bedford; he had spent a lifetime on the water, including some harrowing experiences.  Nugent sailed single-handed across the Atlantic four and one half times.  On the fifth attempt, his boat, a 32 foot proa he built on Martha’s Vineyard called the Godiva Chocolatier, capsized 600 miles west of the Azores, and Nugent spent five desperate days clinging to the overturned hull before being rescued by a Greek vessel that was vectored in by his EPIRB signal (a Russian boat salvaged the Godiva Chocolatier as a prize).  Over the course of 17 years living in a studio on the waterfront in New Bedford, Mr. Nugent earned the respect and confidence of the locals, enough so that he was able to take notes during his conversations with these colorful characters.

Nugent is no stranger to extremely dangerous people and dicey situations.  His most famous article, published in Rolling Stone in 2001, was “My Lunch with Osama Bin Laden.”  When he was reporting on the Irish Republican Army for Spin Magazine and met some of their officers, he was told. “Mr. Nugent, if you are picked up by the British, you will not make it to the Police station.”  In other words, an IRA operative would shoot him before he could identify anyone.  As a writer for Spin Magazine, Nugent said that he “tracked nitwit generals and their lousy wars in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Along the way, he became intimate with both the priests and prophets of intolerance, along with the demons that rise out of bullets, machetes, famine and killing fields the size of Texas.”  In 2002 he came back to American and settled in New Bedford where the seeds of Down at the Docks were first planted.

Commercial fishing is an extremely dangerous profession, made worse by federal regulations, in pursuit of a diminishing resource based out of a financially depressed town.   It is not surprising that the type of person who can survive such a challenging environment needs to be tough.  The book starts off in a seedy dockside café and progresses through various venues catering to the fishing industry in New Bedford.   Every salt-encrusted page is filled with first person encounters with some of the extreme characters that haunt the dockside in New Bedford.  Here you will find rogues, drug-dealers, insurance scammers, mafia operatives, card sharks, smugglers, swindlers, junkies, hard-scrabble desperadoes, scofflaws, and even some honest, hard-working fishermen.   It is as if all dodgy behavior possible has been distilled down to its pure essence on the New Bedford waterfront, pickled in brine, and applied so lavishly that the book becomes a rather appalling, but highly entertaining, read.

Down at the Docks has garnered a huge number of high-profile reviews in elite publications, but I have to wonder how many of the reviewers gulped down the book with their coffee instead of carefully reading each sentence.  If they had paid careful attention, they might have noticed that Nugent is not just a great story teller, but also an exquisite wordsmith.  Every sentence appears to be carefully engineered with the prefect phrase or analogy woven into the narrative.  As a supposed writer myself I was a bit awed, and I think you will be also if you pick up this book.

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