Review by Nick Sweeney

Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press
April 5, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-56689-436-4


Writers will always have the sea. Hemingway had his, Steinbeck too. Melville, of course. Each tackled the humanity of the incoming waves in different yet distinct ways. It's a well that will never go dry. We are drawn to the waves the way readers are drawn to the written word, the endless possibilities of what remains just beyond the horizon. Everything I Found on the Beach, a compact but powerful novel by Cynan Jones, might just be one of the rawest and honest interpretations of what the sea is to us. He writes as the waves crash in and the tides recede.

The story focuses on the lives of three men: Hold, a fisherman determined to overcome the romantic visions of what life should be; Grzegorz, a slaughter-house worker who jumped into a dream to find it a real nightmare; and Stringer, a brutally honest and effective enforcer for the criminal element of the land. Each is hungry, each is waiting for an opportunity to create something for themselves, of themselves. Like fearing the riptide, these men need to understand the consequences of taking a chance. Jones says what we may already know but bears a responsibility to remind us: "Life stays the same, relatively. Unless you get one big chance to get yourself ahead, properly ahead, then it just stays the same." And what is this opportunity, this grand key that will open the locked door of daily monotony and financial stress? One kilo of coke. The coke itself represents a freedom of sorts, similar to that in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. I say this timidly; any comparison to McCarthy surely begs a question of talent and intention. Cynan Jones wrote the real thing here, a pearl among the sand. If McCarthy aimed for a modern western, Jones is telling a modern story of the sea. They are experts in what they tread on.

The funny thing about incoming waves is that they all seem the same and yet they are tiny variations of each other. You close your eyes and relax, and can hear all of them the same. The rushing water against the sand. Each wave hits you again, again, and again. And there's this a rhythmic intention to create a sense of repetition to the reader. It creates an effect few other stories have reached. Each character moves at his own pace—Hold, Grzegorz, and Stringer sit on top of the sand pile and are helpless to the incoming waves. They are us and they will do what they must to escape it. For all of the repeated actions that a sea can have, Jones reminds us that "There just aren't any rules. Just the rule that the sea will keep surprising you."

Every day, we wake up with a crucial choice: we can stay or we can go. Where we go may not be important, but the action of getting up and going is. Each character can feel that need, every reader can see the reasons why they get up. For us, we are left to think "whether it was better to make choices, and to take directions and risk a net being there; or whether it was best to stay bedded somewhere, and risk some great thing being dragged through you." When opportunity comes for these characters, they understand that they've traveled too far to turn it away. They've understood the notion of taking the risk, even if it wasn't the one they had in mind "You kind of asked for something like this. You have to take it on now."

It would be easy to pigeonhole this novel as a thriller or one of our own humanity, or even a book about drugs. It would be misleading, but easy. This book is about tough choices people must take every day, that hope is incredibly infectious and dangerous. It might get us up in the morning, it might make us run that much harder each and every day, but it can have potential to be lethal.

Jones has an incredible feel for describing things that have depth to meaning, as seen here: "Once you pull the trigger, you are responsible for everything that happens in the path of that bullet. You can get all the way to having something in your sights and you can still back out. But if you do pull the trigger, you're up. You follow it through. You can't take the bullet back." He's talking about the responsibilities one has when using a gun, but one could replace that with hope and opportunity and feel the same way. Everything I Found at the Beach is everything we need to remind ourselves how far we have left to go.