Commander Zero is a brilliantly written novel that takes place in the tiny community of Pender Harbour. This is not your quaint and cozy local yokel tale. It is dark and quirky, as lyrical and hard as the landscape itself.
Trying to scratch a living from the sea and forest has harshly shaped the locals. One of these, Joey, has been found in the bush, soaking wet and unconscious from a bad head wound. He has amnesia and is recovering slowly. No one in the community knows what happened to him, how he came to be where he was found, how he was hurt or where his wife is. She is missing. And everyone in Pender Harbour is holding secrets, including the ocean and the woods.
The elements of nature are powerful, fully-fledged characters in this novel, as they are in marginal coastal life.
Author David Lee understands this and has created a profound and beautiful work because of it. The woods in his novel are unforgiving, hiding spirits that want to suck human lives. The sea is cold and dark, full of living and dead things that tug on the humans who work her. Yet above is a world so harsh, mean and fearful, Joey often yearns for the perfect dark sea bed. He is teased, bullied and grudgingly tended to by his bitterly resentful sister. He doesn’t remember having a sister (Joey calls her ‘the angry woman’) or a wife.
Brain injured, lost inside and out, Joey is kindly offered a mate’s job on a prawn boat. One day, Joey helps his skipper and a friend raise a whale carcass from the bottom. When the bones appear, Joey goes into profound shock and fear. His injured brain conjures up the smell of smoke and the sight of blue flames licking the deck. It is overwhelming. To escape, Joey jumps overboard. And just, as he says, he was “coming right along.” From this moment, the mystery unfolds.
Lee moved to Pender Harbour in 1991 for a publishing job that came to naught. With a young wife and two small children to support, he became what many on coastal B.C. have had to be for generations: a scratcher, living on the margin, taking whatever work is going. For Lee, the publisher and man of books, that work was packing prawns at the local prawn plant. This was a different world for him on every level.
“I felt completely unqualified for these jobs,” Lee said. “I was, at 35, being trained on the forklift by a 16-year-old kid.”
To understand his new world, Lee had to “develop an interior voice to tell me how to do what I needed to do.”
He worked as a mate on a prawn boat, a carpenter, a power-washer and the guy at the local hardware store’s rental centre — whatever he could find to survive. This shift incidentally and importantly put Lee in a different class of people in the coastal community, smack up against the power of the sea and the woods and all they hold.
The voice that Lee developed to help him understand hard-scrabble Pender Harbour life has helped him to create a novel that is part poem, part tragedy, an honest and moving mystery.