MINIMALISM IS HARD. Writing a torrent of words, overpowering the reader with gushes of adverbs and metaphors, and generally drowning one's writing in purple extravagance is easy to do. (Exhibit A: that last sentence.) But paring down prose to its most basic elements takes far more skill, and The Boatmaker, the debut novel from John Benditt—published by Portland's Tin House—is full of spare prose done well.
Based in an unknown Northern European country at an indeterminate time, The Boatmaker opens on a small island that is literally called "Small Island." There's also a "Big Island" and "the Mainland," and that fable-like tendency toward the literal sets the tone for much of what follows. Benditt's characters tend to be flat and functional, though not inhuman; they're deliberately minimalist, with flickers of depth now and then, and enough complexity to avoid being nothing-people.
This is most true of The Boatmaker's main character—a man who makes (wait for it) a boat. Benditt's novel is very much an episodic book, with the titular maker encountering a variety of characters and situations that usually don't work out well for him. The small island where he lives (again, named "Small Island") is a frozen, distant place, and almost no one who lives there leaves. The Boatmaker (yes, that's how he's referred to) is a taciturn cipher of a man whose brother died on the ocean when he was young. Eventually, the Boatmaker gives in to wanderlust, deciding to do what his brother attempted—get off Small Island. From there, he goes to Big Island, the Mainland, and eventually the Capital, all the while getting involved in one strange situation after another.
The Boatmaker's adventures tend toward excess. Early on, he meets a prostitute, and proceeds to waste his money on her, drinking and fucking her for days. He later joins a religious cult, where he doesn't drink at all, but the deprivation that the crazy monks impose on themselves is an excess all its own. The Boatmaker himself remains fairly indistinct, quiet, and often adrift (like, metaphorically—not in a boat way) about what he wants, but that works. He's an ordinary man getting buffeted about by a sea of troubles. (MORE BOAT METAPHORS!)
Speaking of which, Benditt is remarkably restrained with the use of metaphors—or any figurative language at all—throughout the novel, both in narration and dialogue. I think I counted one idiom in the whole book, and its inclusion seemed like something of an editorial oversight. The unadorned prose gives the entire reading experience a blank, strange feeling; without descriptive language, Benditt creates the kind of eeriness evoked by an empty white room. Or a blank ocean stretching out on all sides—you can't help but venture in.