You can't write a novel about whales without the shadow of Moby Dick eclipsing your laptop. With his new novel, Swell, Corwin Ericson doesn't run from Melville's great white metaphor—he charges at it, giddily, with his arms spread wide. But Swell isn't an unimaginative retelling of Moby Dick, and it doesn't really resemble Moby Dick in any meaningful way except for the most important one: its passionate love of digression. Orange Whippey, the seafaring narrator, doesn't use one word when two will do. And he refuses to use two words when he can somehow cram in an anecdote about rare sea life, mashed up with an extended meditation about what the first human to eat a lobster or clam must've been like.

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The plot has something to do with the intersection of a mucilaginous marine plant called sea gum, a far-fetched scheme involving whales and cell phones, and a possibly malicious pair of Koreans—"You are a beer-drinking American?" they ask Whippey, minutes before he drunkenly jumps off a boat to escape them. But the plot doesn't matter too much. For good and for ill, Swell reads like an early Tom Robbins novel. It's stuffed with fresh-feeling observations—and old observations dolled up in just the right pair of Groucho Marx glasses—giving many chapters the feel of a hilarious, discursive night at the bar with a talented bullshit artist.

It stretches on too long—a more forceful editor could have cut maybe 60 pages without deflating Swell's rambling spirit. Even though Whippey's the literary equivalent of an old friend who crashes on your couch for a week too long, you can't help but fall in love with him a little bit. He's a romantic, for one thing—Ericson isn't afraid to write a smutty sex scene, thank God—and his obvious adoration for coastal life in New England will leave you longing for a vacation in Melville country. recommended

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