Salmon in the Seine
Milspeak Books (2022)
Reviewed by Tim Schueler for Reader Views (11/2022)
“Salmon in the Seine,” by Norris Comer, is a memoir of the author’s Alaskan adventure. Norris is an eighteen-year-old from Portland, Oregon, looking for an exciting way to earn cash in the summer of 2008. He hears there is good money in working fishing boats in Alaska. With optimism but no experience, he flies north, reaching Cordova, a small town south of Anchorage on Alaska’s coast. Cordova is a remote fishing “village” with an insular but generally friendly population of longtime locals, visitors like Comer, and Native Americans. The town is Norris’s destination based on the recommendation of a high school teacher where he has a temporary place to stay but no leads on where or how to become a fishing vessel crew member.
“Salmon in the Seine” is Comer’s start-to-finish Alaskan summer tale. It starts with his arrival, then his job hunt. After repeatedly asking to be taken on various fishing vessels (hounding the docks daily and putting up “hire me” posters), he finally secures a spot with two other young men on a fishing vessel run by an experienced captain. Comer is shown the ropes, literally, on how to operate seines, giant net devices that scoop up fish during the carefully controlled salmon season. Through Comer’s eyes, we learn the bottom rung of boat life. We learn about commercial seining operations, how captains of boats line up for runs along productive spawning routes, about the dangers of the machinery, about the clothing and the lingo. In short, we get to be “the new kid” ourselves.
Comer’s summer memoir is not just about fishing; although there are a lot of interesting things to learn about the industry and the financial and environmental stresses on it, Comer details his relationships between himself and the other “mates” his age. We learn about Comer’s relationships with the captains of his boats and the elbow-rubbing among the captains themselves. We learn how hard the job is—it is physically exhausting, demanding a monstrous number of daily calories—and what the guys do during their “wait” time between runs (lots of video game playing). Norris has a romantic interest that summer as well as a love of the great outdoors, including a trip to Denali after the salmon season is over. There is danger in the form of weather, fatigue, rogue whales, unexplainable equipment failures and plain poor judgment.
Comer’s writing style is purposefully energetic and, for lack of a better word, “youthful,” which is not meant as a criticism; the author may be more than a decade removed from the summer of 2008, but the younger version of himself narrating events does justice to what an eighteen-year-old suburban transplant would sound like if plopped onto a seining vessel. Given a multi-generational difference between me, the reviewer, and the author’s 2008 version of himself, it took a little getting used to the book’s vernacular and Comer’s enthusiasm, but not much. I’ve been reviewing books for a few years now and the first yardstick I use is whether, night after night, I want to keep picking up the book or not (as opposed to fulfilling the obligation of reviewing). I’m happy to report that it was the former; the details Comer provides about life on a working boat and the particulars of the lives of the fishermen (both on and off the water) were interesting and often quite entertaining. The story appealed: for instance, would a certain captain’s love of boxed wine lead to calamity? Would the narrator’s choice of work boots, different than his mates’, lead to problems? In short, I was happy to pick up the book night after night.
Comer does a good job relating his summer venture. There is little repetition, and the way his adventure plays out, its twists and turns happen naturally. There is enough real life detail (poor weather, malfunctioning refrigeration units, techy diesel engines) to give the book grounding; some of Norris’s adventures are very down to earth, like trying to find an open laundry mat or a place to bunk for the night given his semi-itinerant status. These bits aren’t boring, and their inclusion keeps his tale from becoming uncomfortably larger than life. Mr. Comer’s memoir feels “true”; he has created an entertaining work with a little hubris, a good helping of humility, and a lot of hopeful enthusiasm.