EVERY FEBRUARY, the city of Astoria plays host to the FisherPoets Gathering, a ridiculously fun weekend festival that brings together fisherfolk from around the world to share poetry, storytelling, and music. The quality of the contributions varies wildly—from carefully crafted poems and harrowing stories to bawdy limericks and sea shanties—but it's all grounded in lived experience in a way that's revealing, fascinating, and enlightening. (Plus, fisherfolk can drink.)
Dan Berne's The Gods of Second Chances could be a long-form entry in the FisherPoets fest; the book's protagonist, Ray, is an Alaskan fisherman struggling to make a living and care for his granddaughter, Sitka, who's been his ward since his meth-addicted daughter disappeared years before.
When his daughter Jenny returns, newly religious and sober, she faces off with Ray over custody of Sitka, dredging up long-buried issues in the process.
Berne is at his most authoritative when describing Ray's time on his boat: pulling in crabs, battling the elements, repairing equipment on the fly, and contending with constant, nagging financial stresses. The interpersonal elements of the novel are shakier; Berne has a tendency to caricaturize adversarial characters—the good guys are more well-rounded—and his dialogue can be clunky and expository. Underneath it all, though, there's something of the same quality that makes the Astoria festival so intriguing: This is a story rooted in the routines, stresses, and triumphs of a hard day's work.