The blurb on the back cover touts The Snow Whale as a modern retelling of Moby Dick, but to limit John Minichillo’s debut novel to this description would be somewhat of a disservice. While a white whale is, indeed, at the heart of much action throughout the narrative, Minichillo also draws on the ethos of other classic works of American literature. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” spring immediately to mind, for the novel is as much about survival — both physical and spiritual –as it is about whaling.
The novel centers on John Jacobs, a middle-class salesman whose world-weary sense of malaise begins to fall away when a DNA test suggests that he’s part Inuit. Inspired to get in touch with his ancestral roots, he stocks up on camping gear and heads to Alaska for a whale hunt, leaving behind his wife and their safe suburban home. Although John’s initial goal to “escape the plastic and plenty” of life in the lower 48 comes across as highly romanticized, the novel eventually and thrillingly shifts into high gear as relentless pursuit of his quarry leads the protagonist to experience a “dread only overpowered by the will to live and the fear of death.”
Nearness to death not only makes John feel fully alive, but also gives him a true understanding of the difference between wants and needs, thus underscoring one of the novel’s biggest themes: so inured are we in the trappings of contemporary existence that we’ve forgotten what it means means to live, to laugh, to love, to care. That John initally makes a living selling “desk doodles,” useless paperweights imprinted with inspirational quotations whose lack of context renders them completely meaningless, points up the vapid nature of the life he’s left behind, as does the eerily goofy tone Minichillo employs to describe this life. Yet as the threat of death draws near, the author gradually and expertly leaves the goofiness behind, and the novel evolves into something entirely different: a genuine page turner.
Juxtaposing goofiness and grit, The Snow Whale gets at the heart of all that’s amiss in our hyper-plastic consumer culture even as it proves that, beneath it all, we can still find signs of life.
–Review by Marc Schuster