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Down at the Docks Paperback – February 9, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

Book Description
“No writer I can think of, unless it is Sebastian Junger, might have written this obsessed, intrepid, and intelligent book.”--Alec Wilkinson

“‘Nowhere in all America,’ wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick, ‘will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.’ Not anymore. Down at the Docks is about the lives of New Bedford fishermen--man against the sea, and all that--but it is much more; it is a hard, unvarnished look at New Bedford today, where the relic commercial fishing industry is only one of the components, and where the old ways run smack into modern problems like drug-smuggling, illegal immigration, organized crime, disorganized crime, and suffocating government regulations. Melville would have been shocked to see what has become of what he called ‘the dearest place to live in, in all of New England.’ Rory Nugent tells the fascinating story of New Bedford the way it really is, not the way wistful romantics would like to remember it.” —Richard Ellis, author of Men and Whales

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Rory Nugent

Question: Down at the Docks is set in your old hometown, New Bedford, MA. What lured you there?

Rory Nugent: Boats. I've been hooked on them since childhood. I'm told I went for my first voyage at age three months, stowed inside a picnic basket, my dad at the helm. It was an itch to be near the sea which directed me to New Bedford. It's America's largest fishing port, home to nearly 300 boats, and its history and tradition are inextricably linked to maritime life. For any sailor, the place offers safe anchorage. Plus, it's one of the few remaining working waterfronts on the East Coast. No fancy condo developments. No barbed wire fencing off the area. No entry for gentry or cops or people carrying clipboards. Just boats. And boatyards. Fish. Fishermen. And fish houses. Cat houses. Powder bazaars. Plus old factory buildings, as well as deteriorating remnants from the engine which powered the nation from two-bit status to the world dollar standard.

Q: You lived in one of those old factory buildings, right?

RN: The top floor of one mill was home for much of my 17 years in the city. It was a 60,000 square foot loft, hard by the docks. It featured 137 windows, each the size of a garage door. But, boy-oh-boy, it was cold in the winter, with just enough heat to keep the sprinkler system from popping. In that sort of igloo, with hands refrigerator cold, sex was more a winter dream than a reality.

The city was the world center for the whaling trade and when that industry went kaput in the 1880s, the future belonging to the black stuff in the ground, the next new thing was textile manufacturing. Scores of giant mill buildings were erected and the city literally hummed from the sound of 50,000 looms in motion. Come my arrival in 1986, no looms were in gear, all of them having been shipped south or to the Far East, and the mills sat empty, providing more work for the fire department than anyone else. The rent was dirt cheap. The view was fantastic. And I would have stayed if I hadn't been kicked out in 2004, when the mill was sold to developers.

Q: In your bio, you say you have made 4 1/2 solo trans-Atlantic passages. Where does the fraction come from?

RN: After graduating from college, I went to sea aboard freighters. But I found more reward aboard sailboats, never happier than beyond sight of land. In 1976, at age 24, a group of friends and I built a trimaran, which I sailed in the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR). I finished well out of the money, but I kept at it—sailing the Atlantic solo, that is. While traveling to the start of the 1980 OSTAR aboard a racing proa called Godiva Chocolatier, I was done in by a rogue wave, which capsized the boat smack dab in the middle of the drink. I was rescued five days later and 28 pounds lighter. But I did make it halfway across the Pond.

Q: Many writers can pinpoint the moment when they decided to write a particular book. Did the idea for Down at the Docks evolve over time or was there an instant when you knew what you wanted to write about?

RN: There was a crucial decision made at the start, though the book took years to write, going through its own rather twisted process of evolution. In the beginning, the light bulb went off while sitting at a table with my pal, George Trow. He was a longtime New Yorker writer and the spear-carrier of its establishing spirit. Put off by the ascendancy of Tina Brown and enraged by the appointment of Roseanne Barr as guest editor, he wrote his letter of resignation from the magazine. He then asked me to refill his drink. “Make it a double,” he said. He raised his glass and toasted the past. He then announced, “It's over. What was is no longer.” He wasn't sure what was in store for the culture, but he was certain of one thing: a new direction for the two us. “What we need to do,” he said, “is write dirges. The two of us must declare the old dead.” Soon afterward, I gathered up my notes and started composing the book.

Q: John Leonard once wrote about you, “America has at last produced a travel writer as crazy as the British.” Another critic called you “an unholy cross between Rudyard Kipling and Hunter Thompson.” Both were referring to your work evidenced in your first two books, Drums Along The Congo and The Search For The Pink-Headed Duck. They involved exotic locales and improbable quests: looking for a duck last seen in 1935 and a dinosaur most everyone else believed died off 60 million years ago. What prompted you to explore your own backyard?

RN: A better sense of timing certainly was at work. Instead of arriving late to the table, like I did on the trail of extinct critters in remote chunks of the world, I wanted to observe and document a piece of the cultural landscape before it disappeared and became fodder for romantics and the nostalgia racket. Working waterfronts, for instance, are endangered things, their numbers dwindling year by year. As well, the days of the independent commercial fishermen are in sunset and they now constitute a vanishing tribe. Their population is in freefall.

Q: But you said there were almost 300 boats still active in New Bedford. In your book, you write that the local population of fishermen is around 3,000. The industry produces $300 million in revenues at the dock. That doesn't carry the sound of a vanishing anything.

RN: The vast majority of the boats are parts of corporate fleets, whereas mom-and-pop-owned boats are in rapid decline. The independent fisherman is getting battered by government rules and regulations. His future is more uncertain than that of cod. Meanwhile, big business interests are ready to buy out their small time competitors. Big fish eat small fish and small fish simply can't prosper in a government controlled environment.

Q: Isn't the contraction of the fishing industry part of doing business these days? No sector of the economy is going gangbusters. Why should we worry about the fishing industry?

RN: Worry is applicable across the board, from egg houses to fish houses. What's important about the independent fisherman going extinct is its cultural significance. These fishermen just happen to be America's last frontiersmen. Up until the late 1980s, when the feds took on the fishery in the same way that they took on the forestry and mining sectors years before, fishermen worked a wide open space with no oversight. They did as they saw fit, relying on the ocean and not man to be the arbiter of success or failure. In the 1990s, however, the sheriff took control of the fishery and suddenly, the law of the land extended far out to sea. In the process, the country's last frontier was closed and anyone obliging its establishing spirit was put on notice to expect heavy fines and jail time.

Q: Meanwhile, you write, the city of New Bedford hit hard times and started sinking at its mooring.

RN: It's true that as the electronic age blossomed and out-sourcing became the new thing, New Bedford withered, along with plenty of other cities. During the 1950s through ’70s, New Bedford citizens were taught (in school and in life) how to make things. Fabric. Fish product. Tools. Heavy equipment. Things that you could see and feel and use. They were woefully unprepared for anything else. The looms stopped running in ’60s. The sewing machines which replaced the looms stopped working in the ’80s. Fishing remains the only vital industry in town.

Throughout Down at the Docks, I use New Bedford as a mirror on the passage of the country during its 300 year journey. Remember, the fishery was a major component of American industry until the Machine Age ramped up after the Civil War. Indeed, whale oil alone represented more than 30% of all the nation's exports until the 1860s. Manufacturing then took center stage. And now we’re onto something else and new and unaccommodating to holdovers from the past. The age of Emersonian self-reliance is behind us. New Bedford's history and that of the fishery are, in many ways, merely entries in the log of the American journey.

(Photo © V Creeper)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Instead of exploring exotic locales such as India and the Congo, as he did in his previous books (Search for the Pink-Headed Duck; Drums Along the Congo), Nugent stays close to home for a portrait of the fishing port town of New Bedford, Mass., where he lived for 17 years. With wry humor and empathy (it helps that he is a mariner himself), Nugent deftly tells the tale of a once bustling and vibrant community—the pre-eminent spot for fishing and whaling—and its decline as its fiercely independent inhabitants grapple for relevance in an increasingly globalized world. The book at first reads like a series of colorful character sketches: a junkie conman who turned to fishing after fighting in Vietnam; a jinxed fisherman whose presence on a boat indicates death to all the passengers save himself; the secretary to a secret lesbian fishing society. But the book reveals something larger as Nugent seamlessly weaves in the history of the town, its industry, drug-smuggling trade and flirtations with radical politics. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (February 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720137
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nugent is an American writer and explorer. His work takes inventory of the more neglected shelves in the communal warehouse,those areas riddled with deep shadows due to stock, especially cultures and traditions, gone missing and about to go missing. He has published numerous newspaper and magazine stories, along with three books: THE SEARCH FOR THE PINK-HEADED DUCK (Houghton-Mifflin, 1991); DRUMS ALONG THE CONGO (Houghton-Mifflin, 1993); and DOWN AT THE DOCKS (Pantheon, 2009).

Nugent was born in New York. After graduating from Williams College(1975), he went to sea aboard freighters and sailboats. He made his bones, though, in 1976, the youngest American competitor in the Observer Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race. Although he finished out of the money, he stayed in the game and went on to make three more solo Atlantic crossings. His fifth attempt ended halfway,when he was shipwrecked by a rogue wave. He was rescued five days later and twenty-eight pounds lighter.

Not wanting to swim anymore, Nugent took to field research. He mounted one man expeditions in search of remnants from an earlier era, like the Pink-Headed Duck of India or Mokele-Mbembe, the bronto of the Congo. His travels took him down great rivers (Nile , Sobat, Uele/Ubangi, Sangha,Congo,and Brahmaputra),through the clouds (into the Himalayas--Nepal, Bhutan,Tibet, China, Sikkim) across deserts (Africa and MidEast), and through jungles (Africa and S. America). His first two books, DRUMS ALONG THE CONGO and THE SEARCH FOR THE PINK-HEADED DUCK, document part of his journey.

In 1992, Nugent switched gears and became a full time journalist, his beat: the nightmare; his quest: those missing elements allowing it to prosper.For the next ten years,as a freelancer and staff writer for Spin Magazine, he tracked nitwit generals and their lousy wars in Europe, Asia and Africa. Along the way, he became intimate with the prophets of intolerance and bore witness to the insanity of killing fields the size of Texas. Some of his stories remain standards, including his reports from inside the IRA and his
dispatches (1994-95)from the wheelhouse of radical Islam while the officer corps drew the maps for the course ahead.

After finishing an assignment in Iran/Iraq in 2002, Nugent exited the gloom, refocused on America and gathered notes for his book, DOWN AT THE DOCKS. A new book is underway

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Hilary A. Blocksom on March 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book not only reveals the gritty modern day life of New Bedford, but also links it to its colorful whaling history along with that of Nantucket. Each character is deftly portrayed and masterfully linked to this incredible place where the ocean meets the land.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Biscotti on February 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
With its dead-on, smooth-as-glass dialog and detail so vivid and subtle I could smell the Marlboros smoldering in the fish heads, Rory Nugent's "Down at the Docks" is no ordinary fish tale. I already bought 5 copies to give as gifts.

As I traveled from a present-day fishing port with the death rattle, to a whaling community in its heyday and back around again, I was privileged to sit with characters whole and real juggling lives as complex as the sea itself, mirroring the uncharted path of this country.

Oh..., and you'll never look at scrimshaw in the same way again.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By DC Churbuck on March 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
New Bedford is an alien city, a messy collection of triple-deckers, stone churches, abandoned textile mills and infinite sadness. New Bedford is sad because of its past greatness - it was arguably one of the wealthiest cities in the world in the middle of the 19th century. I expect most people think of New Bedford through Ishmael's eyes; Jack Tar rolling down cobble-stoned streets past the Seaman's Bethel to the Spouter Inn. Few see it as the drug-ridden, tired mess of a fishing port it is today, cut off from the sea by a ugly rampart of stone built to protect what's left from another hurricane like the ones in 1938 and 1954 that nearly wiped the place off the map forever, ruined by Route 18, an ugly slash of highway some dumb politician pushed through to tie the docks to the interstate. Yes, there's the Whaling Museum - it's cute and kind of sad as it tries to revise the bloody history of what the city did to the world's whale population -- and there are parts of the town that ache with memories of past glories, when New Bedford men roamed the globe and fortunes were made on everything from oil to golf balls, rope to coke.

Rory Nugent wrote Down at the Docks following nearly two decades living in New "Bej" It's about eight chapters long, each a profile of a different character, all related to the waterfront in one way or another. From the Portuguese-American, former Miss Massachusetts (third runner-up) tending the dockside diner coffee pot, to the unluckiest fisherman, or Jonah, on the docks, the book is about the people - captains and crew, mobsters and fixers, bluebloods and dope addicts. This is not a book about commercial fishing, watch Most Dangerous Catch if you want to get off on guys killing themselves in orange Grundens.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By James W. Fonseca on November 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Nugent examines the seedy underbelly of the New Bedford, Massachusetts docks in a blend of fact and faction. He organizes the book by focusing on a colorful dockside character for each chapter. And what a seedy underbelly it is: drug usage, drug peddling and drug smuggling; AIDS; rampant unemployment; organized and disorganized crime; prostitution; gangs; fencing stolen goods; illegal immigrants; illegal fishing. Everyone seems to be watching over their shoulder for cops hunting them down for their outstanding warrants while they are lining up their next scam to sue a restaurant or sink a boat for the insurance money. The author portrays this as the end of an era: the last days of the Wild West on the Open Sea. Big boats owned by corporations are taking over the fleet and government regulations are stifling the spirit of entrepreneurship and the dockside free-for-all. New Bedford is still the biggest fishing port in the United States but the little guys are being forced out. Corporate fleet owners want paperwork: criminal background checks, green cards and drug tests, so indeed the era of lawlessness is ending. Landside, the situation is no better as factories have been closing in New Bedford since the textiles mills started moving out in the 1930's. A nostalgia for the old days, the old ways, and the old guys permeates Nugent's characters and his writing.

I grew up in New Bedford and lived there through the 1970's and still return for visits. It's true that unemployment in the metropolitan area has dramatic cycles ranging from an unthinkable 16% in the early 1990's (and again in the 2009 recession) to an equally amazing 4% around 2000. The city is a phoenix.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. A. Cartwright on April 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Spotted Rory Nugent's name on my spouse's reading pile, and recalled how I had enjoyed SEARCH FOR THE PINK-HEADED DUCK years earlier. DOWN AT THE DOCKS is an amalgam of eight stories spotlighting various dockside characters from seaside New Bedford, MA. New Bedford isn't very new at all, dating back to its establishment as a mainland link by Nantucket whalers of the eighteenth century. Through his descriptions Nugent follows the grand arc of the New England town's long demise from whale industry heydays to an over-regulated fishing industry in tatters today. Not all of the characters are fishermen, but all are related to fishing, and each embraces a hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth existence. Well written, DOWN AT THE DOCKS provides a vivid portrait of the fishing life, not on the boat, but ashore...where most fishermen seldom find true comfort.
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