Swallowed by a Sperm Whale, and Mourning His Father

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WHALEFALL, by Daniel Kraus


In marine biology, a whale fall is the body of a dead whale that has slowly descended to the bottom of the ocean. Scavengers strip its flesh, crustaceans and other creatures colonize its skeleton and its decaying bones help sustain countless organisms for years to come, part of the delicate balance of the undersea ecosystem.

It’s lovely, and in keeping with the majesty of the species, that in death a whale bestows life. Daniel Kraus’s thrilling new novel, “Whalefall,” spins the concept into a crazy, and crazily enjoyable, beat-the-clock adventure story about fathers, sons, guilt and the mysteries of the sea. That much of the action takes place in an absurdly improbable setting — inside the various stomachs of a 60-ton sperm whale, where a scuba diver has been trapped after being inadvertently swallowed for lunch — well, that only adds to the book’s brash allure.

That diver is Jay Gardiner, and you won’t meet a more tortured, resourceful fictional character this summer. At 17, he is reeling from the death of his father, Mitt, a legendary diver and mean drunk who had terminal cancer and drowned himself, his pockets full of diving weights, rather than waiting for death to come to him. Jay is racked by guilt — he was estranged from Mitt when he died — and so he decides to atone by recovering Mitt’s remains from the bottom of Monastery Beach, a dangerous spot off the coast of Monterey, Calif.

What is meant to be a quick redemptive dive turns into an epic struggle for survival when a massive whale, swallowing a meal of giant squid, fails to notice the surprise side dish: human teenager. No match for the gravitational pull of the whale’s giant slurp, Jay “slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of raw slime” and then swooshes, as if down a grotesque waterslide, into the first of the whale’s four stomachs.

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