In the Wake of the Boatman takes the reader on a journey through the life of Puttnam Steward. Born during the Second World War, Puttnam comes into an unsteady world, one in which his own father doesn’t appreciate him or even like him a bit. In high school he gets into some trouble but ends up going to college on an ROTC scholarship, getting involved in the military and fighting in the Vietnam War. Throughout his entire life, two things plague Putt more than anything else: his father’s intense dislike for him and Putt’s questioning of his own sexuality.
This is a highly focused character study if there ever was one, and Fuqua does it quite well. Puttnam is not an easy character to like – he is damaged by his father’s hatred and cruel words, he is unable to admit to even himself the true nature of his desires, and he has a tendency to push away the few people who really care for him. That being said, I really felt for Putt and rooted for him throughout the novel. I found myself waiting (and waiting… and waiting…) for him to come to terms with himself, accept himself for who he truly was, and stop caring so much about his father’s antiquated notions of what it means to be a man.
Now, whether or not that ever happens is something that can only be revealed if you read the book. But I will tell you that regardless of how the book ends, of what Putt realizes (or doesn’t realize) about himself, this is a darn good novel. The writing is exceptional, the story is told with tons of heart and as I’ve already stated, I really fell in love with Putt.
I have to admit that parts of the novel frustrated me to no end – most specifically, the fact that Putt absolutely refused to believe that he was anything other than a heterosexual guy. But then again, if I look at the time period the novel is set in (1940’s through the ’70’s) it is easy to see how that would have been difficult for Putt to come to terms with. And also, the fact that his father was so angry all the time and had so much hatred for Putt as it was – imagine if Putt was willing to confess his true self to his father. It helped me realize that in the historical context, these attitudes were completely normal (sad, yes, but also the norm) and Putt was trying to act as was expected of him. The fact that the book was set in this time period, with these characters, made the attitudes within it very real to me – and all the better, truly.
I truly enjoyed In the Wake of the Boatman and if you appreciate good writing, a strong main character, and an intensely interesting character study I believe you will too.