Jon Ransom’s debut novel, The Whale Tattoo, is filled with prose that picks you up in its wake and takes you on a journey. Complex, fraught and violent, The Whale Tattoo reads like an early Tracy Lett’s play – a steaming mix of blue-collar rage and menace.
Joe Gunner is working in a chip shop when a sperm whale washes up on the local beach, whispering frightening portents into Joe’s ear. When Joe returns to his hometown, a fishing village by the river, he faces his past and the repercussions of the life he fled two years ago. When he meets up with his ex-lover, Tim Fysh, events spiral as Joe is caught between Tim’s aggressive brother Doug, Tim’s pregnant wife Dora and his own homophobic father. Meanwhile the whale won’t stop haunting him.
Where does anger go? Suppressed or not, anger infuses the text; Joe’s anger at those around him, at himself, at his sexuality. He grew up in a world of angry young men and it’s through that haze he sees events around him. Sexual trysts are quick and hidden, his lack of connection is palpable. Joe’s disregard for his own wellbeing fills each scene, from simple things like instantly getting his clothes dirty, to pushing genuine people away and putting himself in dangerous situations. He is a man in crisis who can’t admit it to himself, and he’s not alone. Everyone around him is filled with anger. His father is cold and dismissive. Dora wants recompense for Joe’s affair with her husband. Doug threatens to kill him if he goes near Fysh again. Even in death, characters get no peace.
Ransom’s text bleeds between events and memories giving Joe an uneasy, distracted air. His emotions get the best of him and he gets lost in the past when the present gets overwhelming. It’s a gripping read, unpredictable but emotionally coherent. Joe and Dora’s interactions spark with unspoken knowledge and emotions. The prose, like Joe’s mind, slides between events, always inhabiting an insecure, liminal space. It manages to be both blunt and poetic all at once.
The great strength here is Ransom’s pacing. Joe’s life unfolds in an ever-enlightening roll of revelations. Neatly balancing the forward momentum of the story and the piece-by-piece exploration of a man who barely knows himself, The Whale Tattoo places you inside Joe’s mind and the turmoil therein. It’s a tough act, making us inhabit Joe’s headspace without making him unlikable, despite doing a number of unlikable things. Joe is broken and impulsive but there is a core of nobility in him. The theme of unexpected ‘found family’ and self-acceptance reminded me strongly of Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World.
Thankfully, and unlike so many queer novels, this isn’t a book of “misery porn”. Joe’s life takes horrid turns but the reader never loses sight of the potential for growth, making The Whale Tattoo a surprisingly enjoyable and cathartic read.