I ripped the envelope open, the book spilled out, and I scrambled for the Xanax. “The Last Lobster.” Egads! I thought lobsters were like diamonds: They released only so many of an abundance to keep the market price up. And while diamonds have lots of admirable qualities, they don’t taste like a lobster. The last lobster! It had better be mine.
But wait. The title of Christopher White’s “The Last Lobster” doesn’t reflect the nature of the lobster fishery at the moment. Indeed, lobsters have flooded the market in a way De Beers would never allow. At least they have in Stonington, Maine, which is up Down East aways and is the setting for this companionable, luminous book.
But wait again. The current glut of lobsters may be a flaw, the result of global warming of the seas. The glut may be the result of the lobsters’ territorial demise, White explains. As the oceans heat, the habitat for lobsters gets smaller and smaller. Stonington is currently experiencing a boom — there may be other reasons, too, such as a lack of predators with the overfishing of bottom feeders like cod, or the acid that attends burning fossil fuels spoiling other areas — because the water temperature is right. Soon that coolness will likely move north, to Canadian waters.
White spent his time looking for an authentic fishing town, then settled in. Stonington is on the Maine coast, well past the gentrification, past Acadia National Park, up where the er’s become ah’s — as in lobstah — and where the lobster traps are piled in the driveways of the waterfront houses.
He does a fine job of delineating Stonington, and not just the lobster boat races and lobster bakes, but the fog and the submerged rocks, wind and tides, and does just as good a job of describing the activity on a lobster boat at work. There’s the 4 a.m. cup of coffee, winching up the pots, the disappointment or delight when the pot hits the deck, the baiting of the trap: “A whiff of week-old salted herring is better than a dose of smelling salts. It will wake you up and curl your hair.”
As in his earlier book, “Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen,” White spends years at his chosen venue, getting to know the local history (the town is named after its granite, quarried for its prepossessing lavender hue; take a good look at the Smithsonian sometime), as he does the town dwellers. He gives short courses in hydrological thermoclines, the difficulty of establishing unions, the politics and technology involved in tapping China’s huge market, the tragedy of the commons.
White writes with a plain-spoken comfort, but now and then pulls out the stops: “Despite the generous moon, the sea is still ebony black. Up ahead, the running lights of Jason’s Seahawk give us some purchase on the night.” — words as ethereal as the sweet meat of a boiled lobster.
Peter Lewis is the book review editor at the Geographical Review.
The Last Lobster
By: Christopher White.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 240 pages, $26.99.