The season’s standout novels—one from a rookie and the other from a veteran man of letters—concern young males knocked loose to come of age in the northern wilds. Both are set in weathered, isolated places in the pre-Internet age, and the landscapes don’t let the teenage protagonists mature without tragedy. Nick Dybek, son of noted novelist Stuart, debuts with When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man (Riverhead, $27). It’s 1986, and 14-year-old Cal Bollings, too young to accompany his captain father to the Alaskan crab fisheries, stays home in the village of Loyalty Island, Washington, with his flighty mother. The local fisheries have been exhausted, and the crabbers are increasingly dependent upon bigger boats owned by one man, John Gaunt. When Gaunt dies and leaves the fleet to his only son, the town’s livelihood is threatened. Cal is caught in a game of deadliest catch after he overhears the fishermen plotting the heir’s disappearance at sea. Dybek can paint a salty landscape—“Loyalty Island was the stink of herring, nickel paint, and kelp rotting”—but it’s the fast whirlpool of lies, murder, and moral dilemma that drives the book.
In Canada (Ecco, $27), Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford ventures to the far north to deliver the finest book of his career. No special effects here—bank robbery and murder are foretold on the first page—just overcast realism rendered in clean prose. It’s the early sixties in Great Falls, Montana, when Dell Parsons, 15, watches his father, a de-winged bombardier, run afoul of beef-rustling Cree Indians. Soon after, Parsons’s parents rob a North Dakota bank and are sent to prison. Dell is smuggled to Partreau, a ghost town on the Saskatchewan wheat veldt, and taken under the wing of Charley Quarters, a lipstick-wearing goose-hunting guide. Their employer is Arthur Remlinger, a hotel owner who caters booze and girls to the hunters and who poses as Dell’s surrogate uncle. The action comes to a head when two shady characters from Remlinger’s past come for him and Dell has to choose sides. “If you say he should never have brought me there that night, that he changed if not the course of my life, then at least the nature of it … if you say these things, you would be correct,” Dell narrates. “Things happen when people are not where they belong, and the world moves forward and back by that principle.” Both novels culminate in murder, but Dell’s choice is far more devastating; Ford’s narrator, like the author himself, has the wisdom of a half-century of reflection.