In John Minichillo's debut novel, The Snow Whale, John Jacobs spends his days selling office novelties called "desk doodles" and bemoaning the complacency of his mediocre life. Then, out of boredom-induced curiosity, Jacobs takes a mail-order DNA test and discovers that he is 37 percent Inuit. Suddenly, the life of hocking desk-doodles becomes even more mind-numbingly irrelevant. Jacobs begins to feel strange urges. To the chagrin of his subdivision's neighborhood association, he paints his house igloo-white. Spontaneously, in front of dinner guests, he seizes a slice of bacon meant for the fryer and gobbles it down raw. Jacobs sends off a letter to the Inuits of North Halcyon, Alaska, inviting himself to take part in their notorious annual whale hunt. "Please don't come," they tell him. Undeterred, Jacobs takes his credit card to REI and emerges with a new wardrobe replete with Gore-Tex, down and battery-powered socks.
Jacobs shortly finds himself bound for the Great White North, abandoning his bewildered wife. He soon joins a cast of comic eccentrics in the bizarre off-the-grid frontier world of North Halcyon, where men are hunters, women are surprisingly frisky, white men are suspicious, and black men are all but unheard of.
In The Snow Whale, Minichillo, a creative-writing professor at Middle Tennessee State University, adapts Melville's Moby-Dick in much the same way the Coen Brothers transformed The Big Sleep into The Big Lebowski and The Odyssey into O Brother, Where Art Thou? There are, of course, the recognizable elements: Ishmael becomes office drone John Jacobs, who is either inspired or insane; Queequeg the harpooner becomes Q., a precocious African-American teenager who dreams of being the next Spike Lee; and Ahab becomes Aqmaaq, an aging, one-eyed Inuit chief who likes peach schnapps and surfing the Internet but is driven to regain his lost credibility by capturing a certain elusive white whale. Meanwhile, back at home, Jacobs' abandoned wife, Jessica, emerges from her own state of ennui to conceive a life in which she might have more to look forward to than the sight of a defeated man walking through the door at dinner time.
Built on an absurd premise, The Snow Whale is essentially a comedy, full of farcical situations and slapstick dialogue. But as the journeys of both John and Jessica Jacobs unfold, Minichillo manages a surprisingly deft and provocative turn into stronger themes of both a political and personal nature. For Jacobs and Jessica, their separate quests evolve from the flounderings of unhinged suburbanites into existential journeys of profound significance. For the Inuit, who watch their way of life disappear by the hour as the polar ice caps melt, there is much more at stake than the midlife crisis of a so-called "Jonah" from the Lower Forty-Eight. The Snow Whale also becomes, in its final third, a genuinely gripping and persuasive adventure story with an unpredictable and satisfying conclusion.
On the eve of The Snow Whale's official release, John Minichillo answered questions from Chapter 16 via e-mail.
So, ever tried one of those DNA tests?
That would be extravagant. On my mother's side, my grandfather was obsessed with genealogy, so I've got all those pedigree charts. On my father's side, my grandparents came from Italy, and that always seemed enough of the story to explain my history.
In my reading, The Snow Whale is really less a retelling of Moby-Dick than a comic juxtaposition of the trivial world of cubicle culture with the disappearing lifestyle of indigenous tribes on far-flung frontiers. Nevertheless, your variation on the major characters and events of Melville's grand epic is delicately and cleverly crafted. How did you conceive the novel's conceit, and to what extent did your imagining of the plot and characters grow out of your reading of Moby-Dick?
I was interested in doing rewritings of famous stories, and I had done a few on the short-story level, but none as great (both in size and reputation) as Moby-Dick. I was driven by the prospect of playing around with the white whale. Melville's work is in the public domain, and the white whale is probably the most famous character in all of American Literature. I hadn't read Moby-Dick for many, many years and I dabbled around in it, but didn't want to be bogged down by being too faithful to it. Moby-Dick gave me a loose structure, certain milestones to hit along the way, so it was probably more important to me as a writer than it would be to a reader.
And you're right; getting that balance was tricky. There's a cult of Melville out there, and while the humor is disarming, there will probably be a few purists who will think I should have left the whale alone. The Moby-Dick tie-in also gave me a way to talk about the book. If you tell someone you are writing about "the juxtaposition of blah blah blah," they stop listening.
The novel's initial conceit is somewhat fantastical, but your descriptions of setting and action in Alaska — particularly the whale-hunting adventures — are both gripping and remarkably persuasive. What sort of research was involved in mastering the logistics of traditional whale-hunting practices?
It was an important moment for me when I decided to do the courageous thing and step out into the unknown. This is what my main character does, though he's got a lot more (naive) courage than I do. I read as much as I could about Inupiat whaling and also came across photo essays. I felt like I found the right details to sprinkle in and make it believable. It was never my goal to write a realistic account, however, and so I think the aesthetic side is really important here. If the sentences feel right, if they convey the right sensory information, and the pace of the plot elements keeps the story charging forward, then the reader may be a bit spellbound by the foreign / fantastical elements you mention and less likely to stop and question the world that is being presented as "real" or as "not real enough." I don't know how the Inupiat or the folks living up in Alaska will receive the book. I hope my take is at least seen as respectful.
I'm intrigued by how you manage the back-and-forth between Jacobs's adventures and his wife Jessica's transformation back at home while her husband is off on the kind of midlife-crisis journey that would inspire many wives to look into having their husbands committed. How did you conceive Jessica's role in the story?
In the earlier drafts, the bulk of Jessica's thread wasn't there. I was sending this book to agents, who are mostly female, and many of them were probably looking for books sympathetic to a female audience. They didn't come out and say that, but what they did say was that they didn't like the way Jacobs behaved toward his wife and why would she put up with that? For me it was important for him to lose it a little, as a satire, and my solution was to balance his comic transformation by filling out Jessica's role. It amounted to adding about 60 pages, and it kept an anchor to the earlier satiric sections of the book.
My wife, the writer Katrina Gray, wrote one of the most important scenes for Jessica, and it is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. When you write a book, when you finish a book, when you have things the way you want them, it can be really hard to accept criticism. And so over and over I'm hearing I need to do more with Jessica, and I know this deep down, but I'm blocked, I can't quite figure her out, mostly because I'm more interested in getting to the whale. So when I talked to my wife about it, she said it was OK to leave her out, but that yes, there was certainly room for her to grow. I asked her to write one of the scenes and, to my surprise, she said yes.
I started the Jessica sections at a rock festival, if you can believe that. I would wake up very early in the morning, in a tent city, surrounded by tired, dirty, hung-over Bacchanalians, and I wrote all over the manuscript with a pen, with my computer many miles away. I'd been sending the book out for at least a year and was getting rejected, and so it felt really good to get excited about it again. And then at night I got to see Bruce Springsteen join Phish on stage.
Readers of The Snow Whale will be both charmed and chastened by Jacobs' transformation from a cold-calling sales executive with a life utterly devoid of adventure into a spear-wielding whale hunter. Are 21st century Americans diminished by the ease and luxury we were accidentally born into? Are we doomed not only by our impact on the environment, but also by our effortless prosperity?
I've been asked this question a lot in different ways. I'm not someone who would enjoy hunting, and I'm really not some kind of reactionary who thinks we need to get back to basics. But the light show, the vapid celebrity news cycle, the things I'm told I'm supposed to be excited about — it's easy to see through, and the TV culture is not a high mark for us as a people. We are distracted. We are vain. I tend to think everyone knows this, and this basic understanding of what is and what is not important is what makes the jokes work.
To read the entire interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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