The title of this astonishing book from and about Norway by historian, journalist and essayist Morten Strøksnes certainly hints at a retread of the sort of experience to be had reading, say, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” That really isn’t what this book intends.
At the heart of “Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean” is the author’s need to experience, rather than capture, the infamous Greenland shark, a species that lurks deep below the Arctic Circle.
About the Greenland shark, Strøksnes is quick to remind us, “Its flesh is poisonous, smells like urine, and can serve as a potent drug. … The resultant inebriated state is supposedly similar to taking an extreme amount of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs. Shark drunk people speak incoherently, see visions, stagger, and act very crazy.”
If this “need” that Strøksnes admits to in any way channels Hemingway, so be it. But the book goes far beyond that.
If “Shark Drunk” bears a relationship to anything in our American literary landscape, it is Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Between the covers of the book is a hypnotic contemplation on the role of humans in the world they think they control.
Strøksnes seems closely akin to Melville’s Ishmael, that voice of “Moby Dick,” a narrator deeply discontent with his life on land, a man drawn to the vastness of the sea.
Yet Strøksnes isn’t bent on the destruction of his monster from the deep. He wants to know it, to understand its place in the sea, to understand his own place in the world.
To achieve this connection with the sea, Strøksnes spends four seasons at the home of his friend Hugo Aasjord, an abstract painter working in his spare time to revitalize Aasjord Station, his family home, on the Lofoten Archipelago, just north of the Arctic Circle.
“Hardly any place is more beautiful than Lofoten. . . . Even the Lofoten Wall is not eternal or immutable. And yet it may well be the closest we’ll ever come to that.”
As the author contemplates landscapes and seascapes, he investigates the science of such formations as fjords and reefs and the habits of denizens of the sea, from killer whales to fish for harvesting.
He also gives equal time to stories and myths of the area’s human inhabitants. Historical explorers of the north and lighthouse builders share the pages with local fishermen (“Fishing is without a doubt Norway’s most dangerous profession”) and the “draugen,” the phantom of a drowned fisherman (“His head was nothing more than a clump of seaweed”).
All this is scant comfort when Strøksnes begins to fear he is imposing his shark quest upon his friend, a friend with unexceptional obligations to fulfill.
Strøksnes is forced to accept the reality that finding a Greenland shark has become less a matter of curiosity and more an obsession. This insight makes the final pages of the book exhilarating and enervating in equal measure.
“Shark Drunk” is a book about nature, about Norway, about the land and about the sea. It is science, history, reporting and mythology. It is about the art of fishing as much as it is about sizeable existential questions. It is about the hazards of nature and the hazards of friendship. It is a gripping journey.
Steven Whitton is a Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.