Bob Simpson's easygoing account of life on the North Carolina coast (Peltier Creek is near Morehead City) is really a man-loves-boat story, the man being Simpson and the boat an aged fishing craft named Sylvia II.
When Simpson purchases Sylvia she's at the bottom of the Morehead City harbor, having been rudely staved in by a piling during a violent March storm. There in her native waters, she might still languish if not for the love of Bob Simpson and threatened fines by the Coast Guard.
Simpson tows her to a shipyard where the major hull damage is repaired, then brings her home to Peltier Creek, where he undertakes her restoration, taking frequent time out to fish, loaf and rescue ailing animals. Yes, besides being a boat lover, Simpson turns out to be an ardent animal lover too, making it doubly hard to dislike the man.
It is possible, however, to find fault with the lover as a chronicler. Simpson's animal anecdotes and boat fantasies can, on occasion, be marvelous. He dreams, for instance, of Sylvia II decked out as an "old-fashioned girl," reliving the heyday of party-fishing boats: "It called for split bamboo rods, vintage reels, and any old-style equipment . . . such as gimbaled kerosene lamps and loon-bone lures that caught old-fashioned, unsophisticated mackerel."
Elsewhere Simpson fantasizes Sylvia II as a "sneaky-looking, blacked-out" gambling ship, haunting the waters of Bogue Sound at night, emitting the muffled sounds of a pinball machine and the slap of cards on felt." (Sylvia II eventually fulfills at least some of these dreams, becoming an educational cruise vessel, a kind of "dude ranch" for would-be watermen and wanderers.) The problem with the book, however, is that Simpson's writing wanders as well.
A free-lance columnist who often contributes to the Raleigh News and Observer, Simpson exhibits some of the drawbacks of his specialty. He has short bursts of eloquence, but little staying power. He strays from the book's seasonal structure, neglects his voyage motif (Sylvia's eventual trip to Florida) and allows numerous bees to get under his yachting cap, producing overly long diatribes against the forest products industry, real estate developers, etc.
There's far too much reliance on the old "three asterisks" device, used in lieu of genuine transitions, and Simpson mixes metaphors with gay abandon, as in the following; "Now the candle of life is burning at lowest ebb." Showing the zeal of a convert to southern living (Simpson hails from North Dakota), Simpson is sometimes too quick to sacrifice clarity for the sake of a colloquialism.
Equally vexing, but harder to pin down, is Simpson's odd treatment of his wife Mary, and of women in general. There's no doubt at all that he loves his wife, like him a free-spirited free-lancer, but he invariably pictures her coffeepot (never pen) in hand, serving her man. Simpson's not a macho-style chauvinist; instead he plays the affable old boy, joking to his presumably male audience about how women just "don't understand" things like fishing, and male idleness. Though Mary has precious few lines of her own, what she does say is often hilarious, making it all the more frustrating that she's relegated to the galley, where it's virtually impossible for us to get to know her better.
Because his book is devoted to idleness and easy living, epitomized by the the phrase "messing about in boats," Simpson almost gets away with his lack of discipline in writing. Almost. He's up against tough competition in this deceptively "easy" genre. On ecology and watermen, Simpson doesn't approach the craftsmanship of William Warner ("Beautiful Swimmers" and "Distant Water"). And in the category "eccentric Midwesterner salvages a wreck and takes a long cruise"; I prefer Robert Manry's 1965 classic "Tinkerbelle," to which Simpson gallantly, though with an incorrect title spelling, alludes.
To the undiscriminating lover of all things Carolinian, Peltier Creek may prove rewarding. To lovers of fine writing, however, it's a promising little book that gets away.