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In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott…

In the Wake of the Boatman

by Jonathon Scott Fuqua

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In the wake of the boatman. The boatman being a father, husband, role model. Or is he? His son isn’t so sure.

Neither is the father:

"Over and over, his mind fastened on the fact that he had no idea how to give his son a hug. It seemed a completely different act from hugging his wife or daughter…Suddenly, he felt old, warn, and permanently immovable."

There is a lot of angst in this book. Much of it related to relationships both personal and familial as well as toward gender and identity.

Pretty powerful stuff. Let me tell you, this is not a light read.

But I enjoyed it. Even though I struggled a bit to understand the depth of the father-son relationship, which is what this story is primarily about.

Not to get too personal, but it’s a dynamic I am just now discovering through my marriage. I had never seen one in action, and it still remains somewhat of a mystery.

Carl and his son Puttnam (the protagonist) are not characters that endeared themselves to me. There were a few times that I really disliked both, intensely.

I believe this is because the characters dislike themselves a great deal, and this shines through and glares upon their fatal flaws. Imperfection is put on display in a harshness that is only tempered by the relationships each man has with the women in the family.

The roles of women in this book are subtle, but important. Like the men, they are flawed. However they are the strength and the glue that keeps the family together and moving forward toward a resolution.

The author doesn’t end the novel in a way that redeems Putt or his father. Not completely. This is not a bad thing. He does leave the reader with hope that Putt will become a likeable person, not only to us, but more importantly, to himself.

As I said, this isn’t a light read, but by no means is it a challenging one. Just like Goldilocks, I’m gonna say it’s juuust right. ( )
  jcmontgomery | Aug 13, 2010 |
Puttnam (“Putt”) Douglas Steward has grown up in the shadow of a father who emotionally abuses his son to accommodate his own identity crisis. Carl Steward wants to fight in a war, but can’t because of a trick knee; he repeatedly builds boats which sink when placed on the water; he loves Puttnam, but also has expectations of him which the boy can never meet. Carl feels disappointment in Putt from his infancy onward.

[...] Carl had questions about the baby. He scrutinized him from the corners of his eyes. A single whimper and he interpreted it as a horrible sign his son lacked something inside. – from In the Wake of the Boatman, page 4 -

So it is not surprising when Puttnam struggles with his own identity as he matures from a young boy into man. In the Wake of the Boatman is about that struggle. Putt attends college at the school from which his father never graduated (a slight which Carl believes is done on purpose to further embarrass him). Once in college (on an ROTC scholarship), Putt has a sexual encounter with another man which terrifies him. He compensates by plunging fully into his military role and volunteering to go to Vietnam. Putt’s search for his identity is often painful, but also tender. Putt begins finding joy in dressing as a woman – a secret fantasy which repulses him as much as it brings him sexual pleasure and leads him to consider suicide (if not by his own hand, then by placing himself in dangerous situations such as the war).

Jonathon Fuqua fully develops Puttnam, a character who fears rejection not only from his demanding father, but from his sister Mary and best friend Milton. The tension and conflict in the novel are Putt’s internal struggles to accept himself and learn to trust those who love him. The novel explores the idea of nature vs. nurture in human sexuality, and opens the door for further discussions about alternative lifestyles. Puttnam is a character who readers will empathize with as he searches for a true understanding of himself.

I found the writing to be a bit uneven at times in this thoughtful novel. Fuqua’s overuse of adverbs was something that at times distracted me from the story, while at other times I was swept up in the gorgeous descriptive paragraphs and pithy dialogue. Where Fuqua excels is in his understanding of the characters’ motivations, fears and dilemmas. Carl is a destructive father, one who consistently hurts his only son, and yet I found myself feeling sorrow for the character and wanting Putt to find forgiveness for him.

In the Wake of the Boatman is literary fiction which may polarize readers due to its subject matter. But, it will also allow readers to gain a better understanding of those who are labeled “different” by society and perhaps foster acceptance of those differences.

Jonathon Scott Fuqua is an award winning author of YA literature, as well as the Alex Award winning novel The Reappearance of Sam Webber. ( )
  writestuff | Jun 1, 2010 |
Beginning during World War II and spanning the years through the Vietnam War and well into the seventies, In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott Fuqua takes the reader into the life of Puttnam Steward and his family, from his childhood into his adulthood. He is the son of a self-made man, a father who worked hard and expected that others around him should too. Puttnam cannot seem to do anything right in his father’s eyes, try as he might. His mother gets through her days with the help of alcohol. Puttnam goes through life never quite feeling good enough. He is not sure what it is he wants in life. His self-doubts and guilt are compounded by his struggle with his gender-identity. The wrongs he did throughout his life, even as a small child, outweigh the positive in his mind. His accomplishments, such as graduating from the college his father was unable to finish and being a war hero, are lost on him.

In the Wake of the Boatman surprised me. I knew from the description that it was a book I would likely enjoy. I hadn’t realized though how much it would resonant with me on a personal level. I could see myself in both Puttnam and Mary, Puttnam’s older sister.

I most identified with Puttnam. I know what it is like to seek love and approval from someone who is not able to give it and that feeling of never being able to measure up. When it is a parent, it makes it all the more difficult. Puttnam tried for much of his life to make his father proud. Even when he tried to distance himself from his family, not to let his father in, it was impossible to break off completely. The parent/child bond is not easily dismissed.

Puttnam’s sister Mary and his friend Milton are perhaps my two most favorite characters in the novel. Both care about Puttnam and reach out to him in their own ways to try and help him. I like them not just because of the support they offer Puttnam, but also for their own stories. Mary was not a victim to her father’s ill will. She saw what was happening to Puttnam, however, and, in her own way, sought to remedy the mistakes of the past with the choices she made in her own life. Like Puttnam, Milton struggled with the direction his life was meant to take. He joined the service right alongside Puttnam but soon discovered that military life was not for him. His love for nature and birds would eventually guide him to his new career. Even so, Milton had an uphill battle. Mary and Milton are both down to earth characters and anchor Puttnam, keeping him from losing himself completely.

Helen, Puttnam’s mother, turned to alcohol to fill the emptiness in her life. Her life had not quite turned out the way she had hoped it might. Booze numbed her to not only what was going on in her household, but also her own failures and disappointments.

I was not too fond of Carl Steward, father of Puttnam and Mary. I voiced a few choice words about him as I read the novel. He was cold and sometimes cruel to his son, never satisfied with Puttnam and making sure he knew it. I saw in Carl a familiar figure from my own past and that made it all the more personal. It made it harder for me to feel sorry for Carl, even knowing his own upbringing was much like the one he gave his son. Both Carl and his father were hard on their sons who never seemed to live up to their fathers’ expectations. I can’t help but wonder if Carl’s own father had had a similar childhood to the one he gave Carl. Carl was not a heartless man. Just misguided. He always had something to prove, never quite feeling good enough himself. He transferred those expectations and feelings onto his son, Puttnam. Instead of acknowledging his own insecurities, he put them off onto his son.

Carl’s hobby of making boats and his struggle to make one that could float and carry his weight mirrored his own life and his struggles with his son. He did attempt to reach out to his son at times, but his efforts rarely carried the weight they needed and were weak at best.

The characters are fully realized, making them all the more real. I felt Puttnam’s frustration and sadness, his guilt and shame. I could even feel Carl’s internal struggle as he warred with saving face and acknowledging he might be wrong. I have a feeling I will be wondering for awhile to come about where Puttnam would be today if he were a real person.

In the Wake of the Boatman is a study into the human psyche, about how our lives are shaped by our life experiences. Jonathon Scott Fuqua’s novel moved me. In his acknowledgements, he mentioned that he hoped his story would inspire, and I definitely feel that it does, at least this reader. ( )
  LiteraryFeline | Dec 29, 2009 |
In the Wake of the Boatman begins with Puttnam Douglas Steward’s birth in November 1942 and continues for several decades, charting Putt’s tortuous path towards self-awareness. Along the way, Putt confronts a dizzying array of issues: father/son friction, homosexuality, transsexuality, war, alcoholism, death, loneliness, friendship, and romantic angst. This novel fully embraces its ambitious scope, including the ambiguity and loose ends that accompany any complicated life. Although his supporting cast is generally weak and often clichéd, Putt is a complex, realistic protagonist with enough emotional gravity to bind together this book’s sprawling pieces.

Generally, In the Wake of the Batman is beautifully written, filled with lyrical and well-paced prose. At times, however, too many overwrought similes disrupt the flow. This is particularly apparent in the landscape descriptions (e.g., stars in the night sky are “like a light bulb shielded by a colander” and oaks look “like straight, single bristles on the curve of a well-shaven cheek”). Although In the Wake of the Boatman would have benefited from the killing of such darlings, it remains a nuanced and worthwhile portrait of a life struggling towards fulfillment.

This review also appears on my blog Literary License. ( )
  gwendolyndawson | Aug 8, 2009 |
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Puttnam Douglas Steward isn't having an identity crisis - he is one. To his father Carl, he's a disappointment, and has been since the day he came home from the hospital. To his mother, he's "Mama's Boy, " and will forever be nothing less and nothing more. The Army thinks he's a hero, having single-handedly saved his troops from an ambush when they stumble upon a major, unknown supply line in Vietnam, then exposing a major Soviet espionage ring in the U.S. Only Milton, Putt's college friend and environmental activist, and Putt's sister Mary see that something is deeply confused about Puttnam Steward. Yet neither of them knows that the only time Putt ever truly feels happy is when he wears a woman's clothes and becomes, for a brief, fleeting moment, someone else. And they don't know how much that disgusts him. In the wake of the boatman is a brilliant drama, stirringly and sensitively told, about the elusiveness of identity. Another important novel from one of America's most praised and accomplished novelists, it's a masterpiece that won't soon be forgotten.… (more)

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