“The Art of Shipbuilding” is only nominally about being a shipwright. In Edmonton-born Tyler Keevil’s parable, the noun is as important as the verb. Keevil’s brief two-hander is as much about what it takes to create art, and what the artistic temperament looks like, as it is about a veteran shipwright who takes a college student working a temp job under his wing to show him the basics of how to restore a vessel.
The contractor in question is Frank, who has been hired to refinish the Chief Seattle, a fishing boat. Liam, the story’s first-person narrator, is a temp working a summer job as a jack-of-all-trades for Westco, the company that owns the Chief Seattle and a fleet of other vessels. The opening paragraphs set these two characters in opposition through the use of carefully deployed and telling details.
The first time Liam appears, he is piloting a garbage tug, which lists “like a wayward weathervane.” The lackadaisical course of the tug is replicated by Liam’s own behaviour at the wheel: he is described as guiding the vessel in a fashion that is “[r]eal lazy.” Right from the outset, Keevil presents his narrator as a typical temp worker, shallowly invested in the job he’s doing and certainly not interested in putting in any unnecessary effort. He makes a “slow circuit of the shipyard, sometimes actually going in circles,” in an attempt to appear busy should one of his supervisors catch sight of him.
This is immediately contrasted by Frank, a rugged old seahorse who is rumoured to live off the grid in a cabin he built by hand. Westco’s union workers describe Frank as a paranoid prepper survivalist who eschews modern amenities in favour of an isolated, back-to-the-woods existence. “He’s got a cabinet full of hunting rifles, a shed packed with snares and leg-traps. He kills and grows his own food, up there. He claims the Russians are still a threat and thinks the internet is alive.”
Whether Frank is really liable to “go postal,” as the union men laughingly claim, is open to question; what is abundantly clear is that he is viewed as an outsider, in part because he is an independent contractor and in part because he is simply odd. He doesn’t take regular lunch breaks, preferring to eat onboard the ship he’s refurbishing, and he doesn’t observe the union-sanctioned five-thirty quitting time. He toils long hours and pours his entire being into his work. Frank may or may not be paranoid; he is unquestionably a perfectionist.
He is, in short, a dedicated craftsman utterly committed to the skill he has honed over years of working with his hands. He uses only the finest materials, looking askance at Liam when the younger man suggests he is using pine rather than oak to refinish the Seattle. “He shakes his head, as if the very idea of using pine is crazy, unthinkable.” And he expresses astonishment at the company’s suggestion that he cut corners by short-planking the hull (saving money on lumber by hewing two short planks together rather than using one long plank as a strake running from stem to stern).
When Liam asks what the problem with short-planking (also known as “doing a Dutchman”) is, Frank offers a thumbnail lesson in quality control:
You don’t do no goddamn Dutchman. Not on a boat that’s older than this damn city. I thought you were doing some schooling. You ought to know that. A thing was built a certain way. You don’t change that just to save a few bucks. If you change the way it’s built, then you change its form, and it ain’t the same thing no more.
The quip about Liam’s schooling is significant. Frank refers to Liam as “scholar,” a term that, in his mouth, sounds vaguely pejorative. Keevil evinces the same suspicion of academics that Flannery O’Connor does: their education makes them think they know more than they do and the result is empty pomposity. Frank looks askance at Liam because the latter doesn’t understand why someone would not short-plank a hull; in Frank’s mind, Liam may have received an education but he hasn’t really learned anything.
Keevil does not present Frank as a noble, working-class hero figure; he is more subtle than that. In Keevil’s story it is clear that Frank is more than just a shipwright – he is an artist, and the hull of the boat is his canvas. He has honed his craft over decades of patient learning and practice – the kind of apprenticeship he despairs others are not willing to sit still for any longer.
“[T]here’s no new blood coming up. Nobody learning trades. All these young fellows your age want to be suits or desk-jockeys or pencil pushers.”
I smile. “Or starving artists.”
“But none wanting to take the time to study a craft.”
The exchange distills the temperamental distance that exists between Frank and Liam. The younger man responds to Frank with “I hear you,” but by the time the work day is over, while Frank is still toiling away on the Seattle, all Liam can think about is getting home and cracking open a cold beer.
Liam is not without native ability as a shipwright: Frank offers him the chance to nail a strake into the hull and the younger man acquits himself adequately, if not brilliantly. (“Not bad, scholar” is Frank’s laconic seal of approval.) But it is obvious that for Liam the job is simply that: a job. Whereas for Frank, it is a vocation, a calling, a lifetime pursuit.
It is clear by the story’s end that Liam does not have the dedication to devote himself as an apprentice to someone like Frank: he lacks the drive and the passion that the older contractor so evidently possesses. He also may lack an equally significant quality: humility. Frank is wise enough to recognize that perfection exists only in the mind’s eye; for any artist – writer, painter, musician, or shipwright – the moment a project is embarked upon, it becomes less that the Platonic ideal of what the artist imagined.
This may be the most important lesson embedded in Keevil’s brisk, fleeting tale. “It’s like out there, somewhere,” Frank tells Liam, “is the essence of what this boat is meant to be. The form of it, if it was built perfectly. You’ll never get there entirely. You’ll never make it perfect. But if you want to be a shipwright your job is to get as close as you can.”
“I know what you mean,” Liam responds. “It’s about getting it right.”
“That’s it,” replies Frank. “That’s just it. Getting it right.”