by Andrew Furman
Little Curlew Press, 404 pp.
Reviewed by Margot Singer
“Jewfish,” we learn early on in Andrew Furman’s funny, wise, new novel, is the onetime name of an endangered Atlantic species re-dubbed the “goliath grouper” in 2001. The subject of online posts with unfortunate titles like “‘Slayin’ the Jews,’ ‘Jew-Hunting,’ and ‘Outsmarting the Jews,’” the big-jawed behemoth is ugly and prone to devouring more desirable catch. Furman’s hapless but endearing hero, the angler Nathan Pray, considers the dropping of the derogatory moniker “probably a good thing,” although he “couldn’t deny the jewfish’s uncanny resemblance to certain deceased elders.”
Fishing may seem like an odd occupation for a Jew, and at first, Nathan’s Jewishness appears to be little more than an excuse for a mild joke. As business sags, his fellow captains suggest he rename his boat “Jew Fish” to attract more customers. “Get it?” they pun. “Jew fish? Like, do you fish?” But Nathan doesn’t much care for catchy puns or for promoting his charters. And no wonder: he is coping with a recent divorce, a rebellious thirteen-year-old son, an overbearing mother, a father slowly succumbing to dementia, a quasi-estranged older brother, a floundering career. What he does care about—stubbornly, awkwardly, earnestly—are the fish, the environment, and most of all, his son.
Trolling the shallow waters of south Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, Nathan just can’t seem to catch a break. “Here he was,” he reflects, “teetering at that great in-between, a fisherman, who, for the moment, couldn’t seem to catch any fish. No snook, anyway.” Local populations of the prized game fish have been decimated by the 2010 polar vortex, adding insult to the injuries of Florida’s over-development, pollution, and toxic red tides. The climate is changing, the world is changing, and both “Snookmaster” Nathan Pray and the snook are just struggling to survive.
The challenges seem stacked against Nathan, and his efforts to overcome them drive the narrative forward. Will he be able to keep doing what he loves, the way he wants to do it? Will he be able to keep his son (dreadlocks, hip-hop slang, and all) out of serious trouble? Will he find new love? Will his far-flung family ever come together again? Although occasionally the flashbacks and digressions into other characters’ points of view can seem gratuitous (do we really need to know about Nathan’s mother’s real estate sales partner’s ectopic pregnancy?), Furman’s well-developed characters feel both sympathetic and real.
In Jewfish, south Florida, with all of its diverse quirkiness, is almost a character in its own right. The author of several previous works set in Florida—including two novels, The Goldens Are Here (Green Writers Press, 2018), Alligators May Be Present (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), and a memoir Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014)—Furman has a prodigious knowledge of, and deep love for both fishing and for Florida that bring the narrative to life.
At middle age, Nathan has found that he mostly likes the old ways best. “He had become a person who didn’t do, who wouldn’t do, any number of things that most people would do, and did do, as a matter of course,” he reflects. Like Melville’s Bartleby, he stubbornly insists that he “would prefer not to” buy a flashier boat, use gimmicky lures and set-ups, or pursue a lucrative sponsorship for juiced baits, in favor of “venerable principles of angling.” But you can’t duck the here-and-now forever, Furman reminds us: life compels us to adapt. But how, Jewfish asks, can we hold true to what we value most while negotiating the demands of our times?
“It was so hard to know these days how to go about being a Jew is Florida, how to go about being a man, or even a person for that matter,” Nathan laments. Ultimately, old-fashioned fishing and a bar mitzvah bring Nathan’s divided family together and remind us of the power of tradition and community. With humor, sensitivity, and tender insight, Jewfish illuminates the delicate ecosystems that both man and fish must navigate in the face of inexorable change.
Margot Singer is a Professor of English at Denison University. She is the author of Underground Fugue (2017), a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, a winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish-American Fiction and finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She is also the author of a short story collection The Pale of Settlement (2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and co-editor of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013).