3.5 out of 5: In the Wake of the Boatman begins with Puttnam Douglas Steward’s birth in November 1942 and continues for several decades, charting Putt’s tortuous path towards self-awareness. Along the way, Putt confronts a dizzying array of issues: father/son friction, homosexuality, transsexuality, war, alcoholism, death, loneliness, friendship, and romantic angst. This novel fully embraces its ambitious scope, including the ambiguity and loose ends that accompany any complicated life. Although his supporting cast is generally weak and often clichéd, Putt is a complex, realistic protagonist with enough emotional gravity to bind together this book’s sprawling pieces.
Generally, In the Wake of the Boatman is beautifully written, filled with lyrical and well-paced prose. At times, however, too many overwrought similes disrupt the flow. This is particularly apparent in the landscape descriptions (e.g., stars in the night sky are “like a light bulb shielded by a colander” and oaks look “like straight, single bristles on the curve of a well-shaven cheek”). Although In the Wake of the Boatman would have benefited from the killing of such darlings, it remains a nuanced and worthwhile portrait of a life struggling towards fulfillment.