Latest posts on ESPN.com are on three prep prospects for the draft and on Michael Ynoa and Ian Krol. I’ll be on AllNight on ESPN Radio tonight live at 1:27 am EDT, and am tentatively scheduled to be on ESPNEWS on Monday at 2:40 pm EDT.
“Fix? Nothing broken can ever truly be fixed again. … None of this can ever be fixed, and it will all lead to more breakage, more pain. Nothing can change that.” I said goodnight to the professor and went to my hammock. He was right – broken things couldn’t be put back together the way they used to be.
The Dolphin People, by the author writing under the pseudonym Torsten Krol, is a bleak adventure/survival story told by a young boy, Erich, whose family ends up seeking refuge from a remote Amazonian tribe that has had little contact with outsiders. These natives, called the Yayomi, believe that Erich and his family are dolphin-gods who have taken human form, but their superstitions have limits and it becomes clear that this ruse can’t last forever, leading the “dolphin people” to try to plan a dangerous escape.
The hitch is that Erich’s family is … well, complicated. His mother loses her wits after a few days in the isolation of the Yayomi commune, probably a lot faster than reality would have it. His stepfather is a former Nazi (the book is set in 1946) who still believes in the party’s ethnic cleansing policies. And his younger brother has a rare genetic condition that puts him in obvious danger once it’s revealed.
The cover of The Dolphin People is covered with laudatory pull quotes from other authors and from major newspapers, full of adjectives that seemed to reflect the content of a different book. For example:
“funny,” “witty,” “riotously funny:” Those came from three different reviews, but if there was humor in this book, I missed it entirely. It was dry and matter-of-fact, and unless you find the odd ways in which some of the characters meet their ends funny, it was humorless.
“wild,” “absurd,” “bizarre:” It’s a strange setup, to be sure, but part of what made the book work was that Krol, having created his universe, largely abides by its laws. The characters are not that well-developed, but they do behave in reasonable ways, and he even states in a postscript Q&A that he researched primitive South American tribes to make Yayomi culture and customs as realistic as possible.
“written with relentless, breakneck velocity:” Absolutely. The book flew by in a way that few novels have for me. I had a flight to Vegas while I was reading this and read 150 pages in the 100 minutes between boarding and disembarking. That’s Rowling-Christie-Wodehouse territory.
“gruesome:” There are two unpleasant deaths, and one example of severe violence, but Krol doesn’t linger on any of them, avoiding the lurid approach and dealing more with the aftermath. I don’t see “gruesome” as any sort of compliment for a serious novel, so that adjective seemed completely out of place.
“honest:” I have no idea what that really means when describing a novel. It’s fiction. He made the whole thing up.
“thought-provoking:” I would genuinely like to agree with this adjective, as Krol was clearly after some Big Themes in The Dolphin People, but I’m split on whether he achieved them or whether they were worth tackling. I mean, Nazis are bad – we’ve established that by now, right? Human experimentation is also bad, right? The novel loses too much time to anachronistic arguments along those lines, and it detracts from what I think Krol was trying to explore about prejudice.
The real failing of the novel, for me, was the extraordinary number of coincidences and plot conveniences Krol employed to keep things moving forward. They get to the Yayomi village and, hey, whaddya know, there’s a German already there who can translate for them! They need a diversion that would allow them to escape with the Yayomi pursuing them and, hey, whaddya know, we’re just a few weeks away from the once-every-seven-years rainfall that produces massive flooding! Little of what Erich and his family do is organic, and maybe that was Krol’s point – that we are largely powerless in the face of nature and chance – but given his emphasis on prejudices and how many ideas, superstitions, and mores Erich finds among the Yayomi mirror those of our own society. If you focus on those points, and enjoy a good survival story, The Dolphin People is a very quick read without the empty calories of your standard John Grisham novel, but there was enough lacking here that I wouldn’t give it a “highly recommended” tag.
(Full disclosure – I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.)