Plumbelly by Gary S. Maynard, Flat Hammock Press, 2018, 217 pgs., $24.95

The Plumbelly in the title of Gary Maynard’s novel is a sloop, “about twenty-eight feet long, double-ended, gaff-rigged, flush-decked, and tough-looking,” an unprepossessing but spryly seaworthy vessel that would be “steady on the helm, and buoyant... her rig was big enough to carry her through light airs and heavy enough to take a gale.”

Her original owner, Ohio Dave, had docked her at Tongu Tongu in the South Pacific to wait out hurricane season but in the meantime managed to blow himself up while on board. He died but Plumbelly survived, and in time 15-year-old Gabe and his best friend Lloyd manage to clean her up and make her presentable again.

Gabe is eager for a change from life with his coarse parents in the American ex-pat community, and Lloyd is haunted by his own family trauma. The decision to sail away on Plumbelly and make for the South Seas comes fairly easily. Joining them is young Tanya, suddenly infatuated with the prospect of adventure and more than a little infatuated with Gabe. By the book’s half-way point, the trio is sailing surreptitiously out of Tongu harbor in the middle of the night.

The lean concision and deeply perceptive emotional insights in the early chapters of the book are remarkable enough, but what follows is astonishingly adept on even more levels. The story focuses closely on the life being lived aboard the narrow confines of Plumbelly, with a delicately-observed erotic relationship developing between Gabe and Tanya, a dramatic presentation of the dynamics of friendship between the three, and most of all, a stirringly atmospheric evocation of life on the open water in a wind-driven vessel.

That last element is easily one of the book’s most memorable; this is one of the best sailing novels to appear from any publisher in many seasons. Maynard fills the narrative with the vocabulary and idioms of seafaring, and he does it in such an easy, unforced way that his landlubber readers won’t feel at all excluded, while sailing folk will finally read a piece of fiction that gets all the little details right. And the flavor of the book’s seafaring scenes extends well beyond sheets and lines. Maynard has a marvelous ability to convey not only the mundane matters but also the many beauties of life at sea. At one point, for instance, a whale comes to inspect Plumbelly: “It surfaced and blew a lazy geyser, the sough of a giant exhaling a long-held breath,” Maynard writes. “The whale was sleek and gleaming black, twice as long as the boat, gliding along at the surface, broad tail flukes moving with a casual grace. Waves curled and sloshed over its broad back.”

Gentle sailing days are darkened by worsening weather, “an easterly swell that slowly built through the night, rolling through underneath the gentle trade wind seas, the slow, deep pulse of a disturbance to the east,” and suddenly the laid-back plotting of a nautical coming-of-age story picks up pace and turns thrilling. As the storm drives the boat toward the Fiji Islands, the danger becomes not so much the wind and rain as the area’s many hidden reefs: “We all stared at the horizon to leeward, watching for the telltale plume of spray, the white, broken water that would give away the lurking, keel-ripping teeth of the Earth.”

Plumbelly is nearly wrecked; Gabe and Tanya are separated from Lloyd; a sudden eruption of violence further complicates the plot, and all of it is told with such masterful control and eloquence that readers will find themselves continuously indulging in the natural first impulse when caught up in such an engrossing story: they’ll check and re-check to see if this author has written anything else.

But no, Plumbelly is Gary Maynard’s debut novel. It deserves the widest possible readership, and readers can only hope there will be many more such novels to follow.

Gary Maynard will give a book singing at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.