American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GALLOWAY, LES [EDWARD WILLIAM] (1919-1990). A commercial fisherman for most of his life, Les Galloway also wrote fiction, publishing short sea stories in several periodicals. Of Great Spaces (1987), shared with Jerome Gold, collects and reprints five Galloway stories, the most intellectually ambitious of which is “Last Passenger North, or the Doppelganger,” in the “mysterious stranger” genre. In this long story, set on an old Pacific coast steamer, an old captain looking forward to his imminent retirement has a long and complex conversation with a mysterious passenger who proves to be more metaphysical than human. In the surprise ending, which to an attentive reader is not truly a surprise, the captain has died. “The Albacore Fisherman” shows the ease with which a deadly accident can occur in the notoriously dangerous world of commercial fishing.

Galloway’s only longer work, and his best, is The Forty Fathom Bank (1994), privately published earlier (1984). This novella, set in the San Francisco area, is told in retrospect by a tormented ex-fisherman. The German conquest of Scandinavia in World War II has meant a shortage of vitamin A from fish livers, and it is discovered that the livers of nurse sharks, plentiful in the area, are sixteen times richer in the vitamin than are cod livers. The price by the buyers quickly goes up to an astonishing $1,800 a ton. The author-narrator belatedly buys an old fishing boat and tries to cash in. He hires as crewman Ethan May, a quiet, odd-looking, strangely prescient man who advises him to fish in forty fathoms, though no one else has gone that deep. It’s the end of the season, and there’s not much chance of getting more than a few fish, but Ethan proposes the unusual bargain that the first three tons caught be the captain’s and anything above that the crewman’s. They agree.

When the narrator, failing to catch anything much by the usual methods, finally agrees to listen to May, they catch five tons on their first forty-fathom set, making him more money than he had ever thought possible. But over his exhaustion and exhilaration he realizes that from then on all the additional fishing they do will be solely for the benefit of his crewman. Irrationally but understandably, he inwardly rebels at their bargain and begins speculating about May’s possibly being other than the innocent loner he seems.

In the next day’s fishing they do even better, and then Ethan proposes one last short set, to which the narrator agrees, though he feels an awful sense of foreboding. As the line goes out, a hook snags one of Ethan’s boots; the narrator momentarily freezes; the crewman is dragged under and disappears. Ethan’s death is terrible, inevitable, swift, and believable. After it occurs, it leaves the narrator picturing his own mental torment to come.

Haskell Springer