October 21, 2016KR Reviews

On Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 248 pages. $15.95.

Economic despair is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s an affliction that affects millions, including the protagonists of Everything I Found on the Beach, the new novel by Welsh author Cynan Jones (The Dig). Like many people struggling to get by, the men at the center of this book pursue drastic economic schemes that they hope will improve their lot. But the results, and the risks, are not what they anticipate.

The book’s main characters share two traits: a sense that they are on life’s periphery and haven’t received their due, and a desire to do what they feel is best for family and friends. Before we meet them, the novel opens with police officers arriving on a beach to discover the body of a man lying on the sand. Most of the man’s fingers have been cut off, and salt water swells the wound in his head. We don’t yet know who the man is, but we soon suspect that he has some connection to the novel’s protagonists.

The first is Grzegorz, a Polish immigrant who has lived in Wales for more than a year. He lives in a house with twenty-eight other immigrants, including his wife, Ana, and their two sons. Among the novel’s more moving moments is Grzegorz’s remembrance of the day he and his wife brought their newborn second son home. Jones mentions the red ribbon tied around the baby’s wrist—a Polish tradition intended to ward off curses. Later, when the boy is able to crawl, they set around him a book, a banknote, a rosary, and a kieliszek (vodka glass). The object the boy goes toward will, according to legend, determine whether he’ll grow up to be an intellectual, a businessman, a priest, or a drunk. Grzegorz is disappointed when the boy goes for the book.

But that’s not Grzegorz’s biggest disappointment. Life in his new country doesn’t provide the security he had hoped for. The decrepit building they live in has graffiti scrawled on the exterior brick wall, including taunts such as “Polish Out.” And his job at a slaughterhouse—Jones writes vivid scenes of “docile and oblivious” cattle entering a pen as metal plates slam against their noses and chests—leaves him not only exhausted and with rimes of dried blood around his fingernails, but also frustrated at the work stoppages the hiring agency enforces to keep its workers ineligible for benefits.

Desperate for money, Grzegorz takes a side job collecting cockles on the beach—undeclared income that he could get sent back to Poland for if he got caught. But the money still isn’t enough to live on, so he and eight others take a bus ride to a dock, where men hire him to go out in a trawler and pick up an airdrop of thirty kilos of cocaine. The mission is successful, at least until Grzegorz’s compass fails, leaving him to drift in the encroaching darkness with no idea where he is.

Life is kinder to the book’s other main character, a fisherman named Hold, but not by much. Hold spends his days baiting prawn pots with scad and herring, and performing odd jobs such as shooting rabbits at the request of a restaurant manager. He, like Grzegorz, supports a family, but the family in this case is that of his childhood friend, Danny, who died three years earlier. Hold wants to help Danny’s widow, Cara, and her son Jake, a desire that assumes greater urgency when Danny’s sister announces that she wants her share of the house she and her brother inherited. Neither Hold nor Cara can afford to buy her out.

On the night that Hold shoots and cleans the rabbits—Jones, as he does occasionally throughout the book, describes the killing of animals in more detail than is necessary—he walks along the beach afterwards and discovers three wrapped packages the size of a fist. When he slits one open, white powder falls out. Hold knows just enough about illicit drugs to know that he has stumbled upon a lot of money.

He also stumbles upon a cell phone near the site of his discovery. In one of many nicely written philosophical moments, Hold decides that the misfortune that led the drugs’ owners to lose such valuable packages will have had purpose if their sale can help him provide for Cara and Jake. “Think of the solution this represents to them,” he thinks. But Hold has no experience running drugs and isn’t sure how to go about selling them. He doesn’t have to wait long for an answer: The phone rings, and a man at the other end says he wants the packages. Arrangements are made for an exchange. Soon, Hold is involved with a disgruntled Irish gangster named Stringer, and his plan to cash in on his find becomes more fraught than he had expected.

You’d think that a novel with drug runners and a dismembered body would be a pulse-pounding work of suspense. To its credit, however, Everything I Found on the Beach is subtle and introspective. The prose throughout is reminiscent of Hemingway: “They’d loaded the fish up onto the quay and the man had gone into the hotel there and the restaurant manager had come out with him and chosen the fish he wanted.” One of the book’s many strengths is that Jones takes the time to investigate the psychology of his characters. We learn that the element of everyday life Stringer missed most during seven years of incarceration was the cold. “When you come out after a long time,” he says, “you’re like a kid for weeks with everything. Cold air, natural cold air like this. Opening a fridge door.” When Hold checks on the fishing nets early in the book, he imagines past tempests and the “treasures” they washed up on the beach. The parallel, and the foreboding, are clear: Even the most devastating events in life can leave behind treasures. The trick is not only to look for them but also to be able to distinguish between the valuable and the dangerous.

One of the messages of Everything I Found on the Beach is that Western Europe is failing many of its residents, immigrants from elsewhere as well as its own citizens. Jones perhaps makes this point too clear with his repeated references to the evils of the slaughterhouse and the dominion of capitalist culture, from the “big European supermarkets moving into the town suburbs with their cheaper prices” to the closure of thousands of small farms. Yet it’s a hard argument to refute, and, more often than not, Jones makes it with melancholy beauty. The novel may not be hopeful, but it’s clear-eyed about the world. As Hold says, “There just aren’t any rules. Just the rule that the sea will keep surprising you.”

Michael Magras is a freelance book reviewer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His reviews have appeared in Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Iowa Review, and BookPage.