The Boatbuilder, Daniel Gumbiner’s National Book Award-longlisted debut novel, is a striking portrayal of addiction, self-determination, and community. It is lively, meditative, often hilarious, and refreshingly unsentimental. It is also one of the most salient examinations of the millennial mind that I have ever read.
We meet Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg scouring an empty home for any opiates he can find. Lingering effects of a massive concussion have pushed him into painkiller addiction and forced him out of his job in San Francisco tech. He heads north to the sleepy coastal town of Talinas, intending to get clean. His addiction arrives with him, of course, and as he finds work on a charter crew he falls into a cycle of broken resolve.
As much as Berg’s addiction is the result of a physical trauma, it is underpinned by an existential numbness that had set in long before the accident. He is someone whose “experience of the world had always been more plastic, more passive and coincidental. He had never been a man on a mission, exactly.” He’s a twenty seven-year-old of relative privilege, unsure of there being much of a point to anything at all— not even his relationship with the lovely (and arguably too good for him) Nell, an aspiring musician who remains down in the Bay Area for the sake of her career.
His new surroundings do not immediately inject his life with purpose. Talinas is a refreshing and well-delivered creation, a Steinbeck-esque gallery of characters who float in and out of harbors and bars on journeys of their own. The jagged biographies of these characters mount at times, but Gumbiner does not lean on them too heavily or make punchlines of them. Gumbiner nails the placid, quiet rhythm of a small coastal town, a far cry from Berg’s previous life selling antivirus software.
Berg soon enters an apprenticeship with Alejandro, a local boatbuilder believed by some Talinas locals to be mildly insane. From the moment he steps into Alejandro’s workshop, Berg knows that there is something beyond the creation of boats to be found there. It is at this point that Berg’s journey takes on a new life, and a greater level of connection with millennial readers. It is also where Gumbiner’s writing takes on a meditative aspect: “It was like being in some kind of cathedral. Tall ceilings and tall windows and boats hanging from the rafters, strung up by thick cords of rope, listing gently in the air. Everything shot through with columns of cold morning light, smelling of straw and saltwater and fresh sawdust.”
Gumbiner’s knowledge of the world of boatmaking impresses in these scenes. The apprenticeship allows Gumbiner to explore the existential questions underlying Berg’s struggle with addiction. This forms a cathartic element of Gumbiner’s debut. As he explores the mental toll of his protagonist’s trauma and addiction, Gumbiner examines the landscape of distraction and superficiality plaguing the wired modern mind.
This is especially true of Berg’s tough first days at the workshop. As Berg stumbles over tasks that will later be second nature to him, his focus frays easily, and readers can feel his mind struggling to calibrate slower pace of his new surroundings. At one point, his failure to adequately sharpen a chisel gives way to feelings of ineptitude which he finds irreconcilable and paralyzing. At his startup job, he’d been able to apply himself through a sense of self-imposed pressure despite a loose apathy towards the work: “always hungry, always looking to prove himself, hurtling toward eventual burnout.” In Alejandro’s shop, the work is immediate and exact. When he finds himself unable to perform a task he finds simple, he does what we all do at work when we’re bored or dissatisfied or trying to ward off a vague awareness of our own waning lifeforce: he takes out his phone and scrolls aimlessly through social media. A reflex. In the workshop, a bastion of the quieted mind, this seemingly innocuous gesture reads as a new and particularly grave relapse.
Why? Because here Gumbiner forces readers to look at their own cognitive habits. In Berg’s chaotic relationship with his own mind we read our own attention-related limitations, our own desire to lower the frequency on which we move through each frantic day, or the speed with which we compulsively take to our social media feeds when faced with frustration or boredom.
“When was the last time you got lost in a thing?” Alejandro asks Berg, seeing his apprentice’s exasperation. “When was the last time you were working so hard that you forgot what you were doing?” As absorbed in Berg’s story as I was, I felt as if the question were being posed directly to me, and it was harder than I’d like to admit to find an answer.
Berg can’t answer either. But he quickly finds escape in the workshop as he gains experience, forming a sense of connection to every aspect of the craft, from selecting the best tree to mill (the straightest, with “no wind twist and few branches”) to the boat’s first launch. Gumbiner explores focus, intention, and patience through Berg’s time in the workshop and Alejandro’s mentorship:
Alejandro said he liked boatbuilding because it involved the self but it was not selfish. There was room for creativity, but the realities of the physical world also had to be accounted for. And there was little ambiguity in terms of execution [. . .] Berg learned how to do things properly and, with each success, he felt more confident, more connected to the world.
Do you feel as seen as I do?
In his 2013 essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: a Work Rant,” (recently expanded into the 2018 book Bullship Jobs: a Theory) anthropologist David Graeber refers to “the profound psychological violence” of the rise of jobs that “only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working.” The jobs that ramp up life’s pace and intensifies demands placed upon one’s mental faculties without any equitable payoff in personal gratification or societal impact. Berg, at twenty-seven, is not of the first generation that suffered through feelings of workplace purposelessness. But he is a part of the first generation that matured alongside the internet, the least fulfilled generation in modern history. Berg sees, as he caulks, paints, and varnishes Alejandro’s boats, that his labor is coming to fruition before his eyes. It is tangible, specialized, and useful. Which is to say: not bullshit.
Is this enough to save from his addiction? Gumbiner smartly avoids casting Berg’s connection to his work as a cure-all. Instead, the short-lived tranquility of Berg’s development as a craftsman raises the emotional stakes on the novel’s plottier, addictive second half.
To bill The Boatbuilder as a millennial fable would discount Gumbiner’s unflinching and unsentimental examination of addiction, surprising plotting, and impressive prosaic ability. But as much as The Boatbuilder is a novel about the nonlinear and costly path of recovery, it is also an excellent study of the new forces that lay waste to the modern attention span and the associated rise of widespread workplace malaise. This year has been full of excellent debuts, and Gumbiner’s poised arrival is among the best of them.
None, surely, will make you feel so aware of (and so guilty about) putting it down in favor of your smartphone.