“Shakespeare,” Woody Kings tells his favorite daughter, Cordelia. “All the good lines are from Shakespeare.”
The good lines, yes, and strong narrative frameworks, too. In Alexi Zentner’s “The Lobster Kings” — a novel about inheritance, steeped in familial legend and dusted with maritime magic — Woody is a lobsterman who rules a New England island.
Scale of their dominions aside, he has plenty in common with Shakespeare’s King Lear: the imperious, autocratic style; the touch of madness; the three daughters, though Woody’s wife wouldn’t let him name their other girls Regan and Goneril. “She pointed out that Goneril might be too close to gonorrhea,” Woody says.
His kingdom is the fictional Loosewood Island, population somewhat short of 2,000. Near Lubec, Maine, it’s so far north that both the United States and Canada claim it. To Woody and Cordelia, however, it’s obvious whose territory it really is: theirs. Which is to say, his as long as he lives, then hers to take over.
On Loosewood — which seems to have no harbormaster, no police force, not even a volunteer fire department — Woody’s word is law. The threat of poachers and drug traffickers spurs the action of “The Lobster Kings,” but what matters in the long run will be a transfer of power from father to daughter that keeps the island safe.
Their family traces its line straight back almost 300 years to the arrival of Brumfitt Kings, a fisherman painter who would become famous for his canvases of the island and the surrounding sea. Was his wife a selkie — a woman on land, a seal at sea? The Kingses seem unruffled by the rumor that they’re descended from a mythological creature. Art tourists come from around the world to see the place Brumfitt painted, and Zentner tells his story partly by describing those pictures.
Like Woody, and unlike her younger sisters, Cordelia is a lobsterman, born to be on the water. She is our narrator, and through her we come to understand both the steady gentleness and the cruel, unhinged wrath of her father, who is beloved but only partially benevolent. A believer in magic, he is a bit like Prospero from “The Tempest,” and Cordelia — a woman in a male milieu, devoted to her father, in love with a washashore — is a bit like Miranda.
Woody taught Cordelia to see Loosewood through Brumfitt’s eyes and his own, so she understands that the Kings family, ever since Brumfitt, has carried a blessing twinned with a curse: They will reap the sea’s bounty, but they will also lose to the water one son from each generation. So far, family history has borne out that prophesy.
Cordelia’s little brother, Scotty, drowned as a boy. This cleared the way for her inheritance, but she has never stopped feeling wounded that her father — blind to her worth, oblivious to Scotty’s discomfort on the water — put his son first just because he was a son. Without that old psychic injury, would she feel the need to swagger quite so much? As the captain of her own lobster boat, she more than once endangers everyone on board in order to prove herself.
It’s on one of those occasions that “The Lobster Kings” veers suddenly into utter absurdity, briefly becoming a bad detective novel, complete with murdered man. When Woody arrives, his is the voice of reason. “Call in the Coasties,” he commands, and we are stunned at this display of common sense. “It’s one thing to handle a turf war on our own, but it’s another thing entirely when we’re finding dead bodies.”
But mostly Zentner keeps a firm grip on his tale, and Loosewood, for all its particular mythology, is recognizable to anyone who’s lived in a tiny New England town bordered by salt water. That’s part of the reason that Brumfitt Kings’s paintings make such good narrative sense — because on Loosewood Island, as in so many of those real-life towns, “being an artist was almost as common as being a fisherman.” It’s a sensible downtime activity. “There were enough people who took up drinking or smoking pot, but arts and crafts came in a pretty popular second to self-destruction.”