★★★★★ The Last Whale Watch and other stories by Bert Silva is an electric array of character snapshots focused on well-meaning Americans throughout the last century. Some of these stories illustrate how transformative experiences brought on by the extraordinary pressures of wartime or life at sea can change a person in an instant. The titular tale here follows a young man at a critical juncture in his life, taking place at some undefined point in the future and, zanily enough, costarring three mechanical whales. Other stories are a bit quieter, focusing on brief frames of their characters’ lives – a day of drudgery as a young farmhand, for example – and showing how even during our most mundane moments, our minds are constantly buzzing, scheming. Dreaming.
They say to write what you know, and Silva’s expertise on subjects as varied as sailing and the Hollywood film industry shines through in this short story collection. His stories seem to oscillate between two extremes: in a good portion of them, we follow characters who are trying to hold onto that last vestige of stability while the emotional and political landscape continues to shake and tumble around them. In an equally sizable sample, his characters are trying to achieve just the opposite goal, seeking a volatile catharsis through acts like murder, revenge, and risky decision-making in the hopes that it will somehow lend new meaning to their lives. Silva dazzles with a truly impressive storytelling smorgasbord, switching gears between quasi-dystopian, Melvillian tragedies and equally gut-wrenching stories of decadence and depression during a nostalgic American heyday.