Novelist finds his place as a modern myth-maker
In The Lobster Kings, Alexi Zentner weaves a story that feels at once perfectly realistic and like a legend borrowed from another era. The novel, published in May by W.W. Norton, arrives just three years after Zentner’s critically acclaimed debut, Touch.
Zentner, an assistant professor of English at Binghamton, describes his style as mythical realism, an idea related to (but separate from) the tradition of magical realism established in Central and South America.
“I try to work the myth through the fabric of the entire story,” he says. “I’m not interested in using myth or magic as a showy parlor trick. I hope what I’m doing is something new and different.”
The Lobster Kings is new and different on several levels. The novel, which pays homage to Shakespeare’s King Lear, centers on the relationship between an aging man and his three daughters, one of whom is named Cordelia. But it’s also an entirely modern tale featuring meth dealers and a female ship captain who hopes to stop them before they wreck her hometown. There’s homicide, a rape, the legacy of a world-famous painter and stormy seas, too.
Publishers Weekly called the novel “brutal and beautiful” and noted that Zentner gets the reader to root for Cordelia early on. “His fusion of myth and mission, fury and beauty, as well as the palpable sense of place in this unique corner of the world add up to a memorable tale,” the review concluded.
The Lobster Kings unfolds on an island off the coast of Maine in the near-past of 2005. That allowed Zentner to work around technology challenges that all writers face when they write about the present day. “If you set a novel today in Manhattan, you can’t have missed connections,” he says. “You can’t have mistaken identities. It’s almost impossible to write about somebody getting lost.”
Zentner wanted his fictional fishing village to reflect reality, especially the reality that even in small towns, not everyone’s alike. Loosewood Island has its tough guys and alcoholics — as well as lesbians, teachers, artists and criminals. Zentner says he does enough research for a project that he knows what he’s talking about but not so much that he’s writing a book report. There’s a risk, he says, of being accurate but boring.
“Nobody’s interested in what the day-in, day-out of lobster fishing is; they’re interested in the idea of it,” Zentner says. “We’re more interested in what it means to be that person than what it actually entails.”