Time Bandit Review

Time Bandit
Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs
Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand, with Malcom MacPherson
Ballantine Books
Price: $25.00; Released April 2008

The Hillstrand brothers, for those not familiar with Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, own and operate a crab fishing boat out of Alaska. The TV show follows them and other crab crews over the season. Time Bandit is the brothers’ story of how they became fisherman, how it affects their lives off the boat and the large amounts of alcohol, nicotine and sugar that are consumed during the crab season.

The book opens outside the crab season with Johnathan fishing for salmon alone. His boat runs into trouble and without engines and a radio he is at the mercy of the sea. His story serves as a framing device for the rest of the book. While on the boat, Johnathan “remembers” events from his childhood and days as a fisherman. Interspersed with Johnathan’s chapters are chapters from Andy, who is at his horse ranch in Indiana in the off season. Andy also looks back at his fishing life as well as offering some background on Alaskan, national and international laws and politics that govern the community. A few chapters from a third-person point-of-view describe what happens at the fishing camp when Johnathan doesn’t return and can’t be raised on the radio.

At times, the interwoven stories are hard to follow. It’s difficult to tell one brother from the other before you get to a specific detail that says “I’m on the boat” or “I’m on the farm.” It’s best to think of the book, not as a linear story interrupted by flashbacks, but as a long evening or two in one of the bars the crab crews frequent with Johnathan and Andy telling you stories. Some are shorter than you want; others are longer. And just like a bar conversation, tangents pop up that derail what seemed like a really good story that you never get back to.

Also, just like a bar conversation, the brothers talk about their friends and employees as if you also knew them. For someone who’s not that familiar with the TV series, descriptions of crabbers other than the Hillstrands are light. Readers get to know these men in broad strokes through snippets of stories involving near injury or arguments with the captains.

The book is at its best when the brothers take the time to flesh out the narrative and explain their jobs thoroughly. Johnathan describes a crab run that frustrates the men at first before the pots starts filling up. On its way to a processing center to drop off their $200,000 catch, the boat runs into pack ice. The story is occasionally interrupted by a tangent or the salmon story, but it’s told in full and keeps you turning the pages. Andy’s piece on the rationalization of crab fishing, which involves a lengthy discussion of Derby Day and Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, would seem to be a dry discussion of evolving legislation. Instead, it becomes one of the more interesting pieces of the book as he describes how the law changed how he works and the concerns he and his colleagues have over the future of the industry. Both men describe these pieces with passion; readers safe in their armchairs come away with an understanding of what life on the Bering Sea is like.

Unfortunately, the overall narrative is often choppy. If you’re having a bar conversation and are just as drunk as the guy telling tales, you’re okay with the tangents and distractions. If you’re the designated driver, you have trouble following the conversation and want to ask a lot of follow-up questions. Andy’s explanation of rationalization, although well written for the most part, has a confusing framing. It begins with Andy walking to the Indiana barn to check out his horses; his thoughts about change lead to the rationalization discussion. At the end of it, however, as he describes how the old ways are disappearing, he is suddenly on a plan with a pilot announcing an imminent landing in Alaska. This disconnect is typical of the book. A careful reader will want to look back at previous pages, thinking he’s lost the thread of the book. No thread has been lost; a new one was picked up without warning.

For fans of Deadliest Catch, Time Bandit may be a fast read with the confusion absent thanks to familiarity with the authors and setting. For someone not as familiar, the book is best read in small chunks with the ability to skim over the shorter tangents and confusing bits to reach the longer stories.

I received the review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. If you like – no, love reading – I recommend the program. The June list should be coming out soon. It’s hit or miss which book you receive to review or if you even receive a book, but it’s a great opportunity to read things you might otherwise not pick up. I never would have picked up Time Bandit in the bookstore or library, and, while I didn’t fall in love with the book, I was entertained. Plus, I’m enough of a writing geek to enjoy seeing the publishing process. The book arrived as an advance uncorrected proof with a plain cover and typos. Not the same version that hit bookstores in April.


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