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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.


2017 | Novella
A cover of Sacculina by Philip Fracassi (2017)
B: 4 stars (out of 5)
on Oct 09, 2023

To celebrate Jim’s older brother Jack’s release following a six-year prison stint, the brothers, their father Henry, and Jack’s hulking best friend Chris, charter a fishing boat in the Pacific. The choppy seas don’t bode well for an outing, but the group presses ahead, and their grizzled captain takes them a few miles offshore to a deep spot good for fishing. But the men soon realize they’re under threat by an unknown, overwhelming assailant—and how alone they are at sea.

Philip Fracassi proffers an anxiety-evoking tale of tension and dread. He strikes an unsettling tone from the outset. Three paragraphs in, he writes:

Even at a couple feet of depth the water looked alive; suds and trash felt up the thin shoreline like a thousand lapping tongues, each as hungry as the last.

As they head out to sea, Fracassi evokes a nightmarish environment. The rise and fall of the boat over the choppy waves, the suffocating smell of gasoline from the engine, and the ear-splitting whine of the motor create a claustrophobic sense of confinement.

Fracassi ratchets up the tension as they fish, with Chris getting a bite that proves stronger than expected.

“What do you think it is? Feels strong as hell,” he said over his shoulder to the approaching captain.

“Yuh, it’s got some speed to her, that’s for sure. Could be anything, there are sunfish that could pull a man clean off a boat, a’ course that’s more down south a ways…”

Fracassi having Chris—a six-foot-plus, 280-pound, barrel chested behemoth—struggle to reel in his catch enhances the sense of danger.

Chris was sweating now, his arms shaking, his feet shuffling.

When we glimpse the catch, Fracassi avoids the sea monster trope we were expecting.

Minutes passed, and Chris kept turning the reel, and then, finally, about ten yards out, something broke the surface.

“What the hell is it?” Chris asked.

“I… well, I dunno,” the captain said, sounding uncertain, confused. “Looks like a sea bass, and not a very big one, but I’ll be damned if it ain’t fighting like a shark.” He poised the net over the water, feet spread apart, braced. “Keep ‘er coming now…”

I won’t spoil any more. Just know Fracassi crafts an evil far more unsettling than super fish or a giant squid.

The execution, however, isn’t perfect. Fracassi overwrites at times, telling instead of showing. Consider Henry’s introduction. Fracassi writes:

He was young, having just turned sixty, but life had taken a toll on him, and Jim knew he was physically old for his age.

Fracassi didn’t need that bit, considering what he writes next:

Sadness and loss did that to a man—took from him. Took from the inside out, so that by the time you saw the results it was too late to do anything about it. What was done was done. Life was a merciless thief with a black heart, and you hoped it passed you by when scouting for its next victim.

I also had trouble visualizing the boat’s layout. Crucial given it’s the story’s primary setting. Consider this sequence:

“Damn damn DAMN!” he yelled, then, with more dexterity than Jim would have thought him able, he hoisted himself up onto the coaming of the boat’s side, grabbed the rail that ran the top-length of the wheelhouse, and skirted the outside of the boat toward the bow, where Jim had seen a small seating deck for two or three that none of them had bothered to yet occupy.

Fracassi uses nautical terms like coaming, wheelhouse, and bow. I knew “bow” and could infer “wheelhouse”, but had to leverage the Kindle’s dictionary to decipher “coaming”, and even then struggled to visualize the flow of action. Fracassi also measures things in meters. While appropriate to the sea, this feels incongruous given the point-of-view seems centered on Jim, an American and not a sailor.

And as a final nit, this passage struck me as odd:

He heard his father squeal and tuck his knees up onto the bench, then awkwardly tried to reach his feet, like the cartoon image of a fifties housewife jumping onto a chair at the sight of a mouse.

Given night had fallen and Jim could only hear his father scream, did he also hear him tuck his knees and try to reach his feet? It’s a good visual, but the scene would play stronger if Fracassi limited it to what Jim could hear.

That said, these flaws prove minor. Reading a story is like following another car. Sometimes you lose them for a few minutes, sometimes you give up following them and put the book down, and sometimes you follow them with no problems to an underwhelming destination. But sometimes, like this story, you have a little trouble along the way, but the destination proves worth the occasional missed light and wrong turn.

Fracassi builds an almost palpable dread, then delivers the goods once his narrative cards are on the table. He resists the urge to expand the tale beyond novella length, avoiding cliched scenes reconciling familial drama, or engineering contrived situations to leverage Jack’s time in prison.

He introduces four characters, made real by their flaws, then puts them through hell, not to move them through a character journey, but to place us there by proxy. To feel their fear and despair and insignificance. A powerful work.

The premise invites comparisons to Stephen King’s 1982 short story, “The Raft,” but Fracassi’s work feels so assured, it’s as though someone said he couldn’t write a better version of King’s story and Fracassi set out to prove them wrong. Fracassi retains King’s basic setup and structure, but his tale proves far more intense and unsettling. I think King would be proud, though his fans should beware—Fracassi’s sentiments run closer to King’s cynical pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

Oh, and about the title. I didn’t recognize the word, and it didn’t appear in the story, so I looked it up after reading. I recommend you do the same. It’s like a post-credits stinger.

Reading History

    Mon Oct 09, 2023 via Kindle (Lethe Press, 2020)
    Read over 3 Days
    1. 07 Oct, 2023
    2. 09 Oct, 2023