Howard Butcher’s underwater thriller brims with authenticity, energy, and thematic depth. Buy Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea today on Amazon.


Jonah slept all day. When he woke up he went straight into the taproom to eat a sandwich and check for telephone messages. There was just one message. A retired diver named Porter had called to say the tiger shark head Jonah had ordered a month earlier had come in. Like many divers, Jonah liked to collect souvenirs from the sea. He planned to cut the jaws from the shark’s head and make them into a trophy.

Still in the taproom, Jonah called Porter and arranged to pick up the tiger shark head straight away.

He went upstairs to his room to get his car keys—a rusted-out Chevy El Camino with bald tires. A young woman he had noticed before was sweeping the walkway in front of his door. The last time Jonah saw her she was carrying an armful of books to a red Volkswagen in the parking lot, and then drove off in a hurry.

Today she wore jeans and a white flowered blouse and had her dark hair combed into a glossy ponytail. She could be a relative of the old woman who owned the Yellow Catfish and ran the kitchen, but more innocent. Clear-eyed and fresh-faced, she looked as if she had never lit a cigarette or set foot in a bar.

“Sorry,” Jonah said, sidling by in an effort not to step in the dust she’d swept into a pile.

She leaned back against the railing to let him pass.

“That’s okay,” she said pleasantly.

            Jonah drove to Porter’s cabin to pick up the tiger shark head. The cabin was the last of three dwellings down a narrow gravel road on the edge of a bayou. Jonah switched off the engine and stepped out of the El Camino. The sound of frogs and insects rose in his ears like a wordless chant, something from a million years ago. The sun began to set and mist drifted over the bayou.

Jonah knocked on the front door of the cabin and Porter let him in. Porter seemed half drunk and unsteady on his feet. The old diver carried himself with an attitude of surly intolerance, unshaven and gray-haired, but he acted glad to have a visitor. Jonah had only met him twice before but didn’t really know the man. They went into the living room. Although Jonah had seen it once before, it still impressed him.

Porter had an enormous collection of shark jaws mounted on the walls floor to ceiling with mouths wide open, ferocious and ready to bite. There were at least thirty, all of various sizes and different species and many with evil-looking teeth. The cabin’s cypress floor and walls made it feel like the inside of a giant hollowed tree; a tree haunted by a host of hungry, awful smiles and memories of abyssal blue. Jonah reached out and brushed the edge of one tooth. The jaw was labeled oceanic whitetip—the most dangerous open-water shark in the ocean. The tooth stung, and there was a thin line of blood on his finger.

“It’s in the kitchen,” Porter said. “Follow me. We need to drink to the shark.” Porter got shark heads from a commercial fisherman and cut out and cleaned the jaws himself. He got the tiger shark head for Jonah from the same source.

The two men stood in the kitchen holding teacups one-quarter full of whisky. Between them on the kitchen table like an alien creature lay the enormous half-frozen head of a twelve-foot-long tiger shark. The head had been roughly severed with a chainsaw. Jonah gazed at the shark head with pure admiration. It was beautiful, perfect. He didn’t try to hide his delight and couldn’t quite believe the head was his.

The tiger shark head rested spotless and intact down to the beginning of the first gill flap. On the two black trash bags it had been delivered in, it looked like a heavy blunt piece of gray meat. They drank to the shark.

The whiskey burned Jonah’s throat, and his eyes watered.

Porter rolled the shark head over with a scraping thud, turning the white underside and curved mouth up to the ceiling. Blood leaked slowly from the middle of the raw end. It was very fresh. Leaning close, Jonah could just see the tips of the teeth behind the rim of the lips. A whiff of urea reached his nose.

“This was one serious mother in her world,” Porter said patting the shark on the nose. “The tiger jaws I’ve got through there came from a fifteen footer but this one is real nice also. There’s not even a mouth wound. See. She must have been gut hooked.”

“Yeah,” Jonah agreed.

“Feel it,” Porter said.

Jonah put his hand on the shark.

“This is one solid animal,” Porter said. “Thick muscle and hard cartilage. Skin, rough and sharp against the grain, like some kinda abrasive chain mail. Nothing fat or soft on her. The only place where there’s some give on a shark is in the gills and the eyes. Besides that, they’re perfect for the ocean. Wild and perfect.”

Porter went on to describe in detail how the jaws should be removed and cleaned. He showed Jonah where to expect difficulty cutting and how to cut around the occipital lobes of the upper jaw rather than through them. He gave Jonah a sharp carving knife, a scalpel, three spare blades, and a large sealed white bucket containing industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide diluted by half with tap water. At the end of the lesson, they rolled the head over the right side up. Even with frozen eyes, the austere fish seemed to regard them with contempt. Again they raised their teacups to the shark.

Jonah carried the tiger shark head and the large bucket of hydrogen peroxide out to the El Camino in two trips. Bear-hugging the shark head, he placed it in the carryall. He set the bucket down inside the car on the floor of the passenger’s side. Looking back past the dark silhouette of Porter’s cabin, Jonah noticed a stand of young cypresses growing crookedly by the swamp’s edge. They looked like black gnarled scarecrows hovering above the thin mist stirring over the bayou. The air hummed with mosquitoes, and he tried to wave them away, but they were tireless.

Feeling light with whisky but happy to have such a great set of shark jaws, Jonah walked back across the loose gravel and inside. He felt charged up and meant to clean the jaws as soon as the head thawed, even if it took him all night. He thanked Porter a second time and collected the carving knife, scalpel, and extra blades that Porter was lending him.

On the way to the car, Jonah looked back into the living room window. He saw Porter crossing the room with a fresh beer held like a prize. The old diver put his beer down on a table, then walked up before giant shark jaws and stood with his arms akimbo. His head wagged in conversation. Alone in the room, the old diver talked to the shark jaws. And drank to the shark.


Jonah dragged his bedside table to the middle of the room and left it near the foot of his bed. He unfolded two newspapers and placed one on the floor under the legs of the table and the other on the tabletop. On the front page of the newspaper he saw an article about the recent Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival with a black-and-white photograph of a couple eating crawfish from white Styrofoam containers. He pulled the tiger shark head out of the trash bags and placed it on the couple eating crawfish.

The head was still partially frozen but thawing fast. Jonah let it sit while he laid out the carving knife and scalpel.

Suddenly the room was oppressively hot, and his head reeled. He drank cold tap water from the sink and it hit his stomach like a lump of ice. He wiped his mouth and moved over to the wall nearest the shark head. He slid down the wall, sat on the floor with his legs splayed out, killing time, while the shark head thawed.

He pictured himself from a point high outside his body and saw a young man sitting alone in a room late at night with a large shark head.

Most people wouldn’t understand what he was up to, but his grandmother would have, and he still missed her. It was a curious thing, but when Jonah thought about his childhood, most of his memories came back to him in black and white, without sound. The past he lived with was sad, like an old movie about a kid who grows up in a crowded foster home where nobody notices or pays attention to him—early memories that were fuzzy and hard to feel, as if they belonged to somebody else.

Only the years after his grandmother adopted him seemed real, the years when he lived by the ocean with her—when he felt loved and wanted. His memories of the ocean were always vivid and in color: the awesome blue of the Atlantic; the roar of the waves crashing onto the beach; seagulls shrieking and laughing; the iodine smell of drying seaweed; the wiggly feel of wet sand between his toes; the cold sea rushing around his naked legs and sucking the sand from beneath his feet; his grandmother holding his hand so he wouldn’t fall over. She was right there in all of his ocean memories, teaching him how to swim, taking care of him, standing on the beach behind him when he went out on his own. Always keeping him safe.

Their last year together she had given him a special hardback edition of Moby-Dick for his twelfth birthday, and she signed it:


To J,

                                     A young Ishmael, because you love the sea.




Jonah sat on the floor, his eyes level with the shark’s eyes, losing track of time as he watched the head thaw. By degrees her eyes unclouded and ultimately turned a shiny black-brown. Blood seeped from the raw decapitation, forming a small pool on the newspaper. Yet the shark looked so fresh, returned Jonah’s gaze with a visage so near life, that he wondered drunkenly, if by some miracle, she was still alive.

He leaned wearily back into the wall and breathed deeply; a tranquil reverie settled over him. A faint splash of salt spray touched his ears, a pelagic wilderness opened before him, and with a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and saw the shark as a living creature, bodily whole and robust, the free-swimming and supreme predator she had been.

Forward she glided—always forward and deep down beneath it all—propelling herself through and over layers of blue, piercing the waters nose first with heavy sweeps of her crescent tail, taking into her broad mouth and breathing through her gills the life-sustaining seas. Between rows of sharp white teeth passed the fluid substance of deep canyon ridges, ravines, and yawning blue. The undiscovered whereabouts of shipwrecks and priceless treasures were hers to drink up. Effortlessly she navigated the treacherous currents and tides of coral atolls, mangrove shallows, turquoise cays, and glittering lagoons. From the Mozambique Channel to the waters of New England and on and on . . .         Jonah imagined her even dropping into the midnight depths, probing the planet’s darkest places: a chasm of crushing darkness with underwater mountain ranges and plateaus unseen and unvisited by man.

His eyes still closed, he saw the tiger shark cruising among schools of squid, passing incredible and grotesque fish of every shape and size: misshapen chimaeras, lampreys with suctorial mouths, inflated pufferfishes, sawfishes with rostrums rounded by teeth, and huge iridescent jellyfishes. And feasting and feasting, with powerful jaws and snapping teeth, consuming and devouring carrion and all manner of living flesh, from great dead leviathans to scanty brine shrimp.

In some far region of his mind, Jonah envied the shark for being born to the water, for having so clear a purpose, such a free life. He envied the shark for her sheer potency and vigor, and her complete mastery. Suddenly his eyes came open and he stared at the shark’s head, at the bluntness of her snout and the contrast of her gray-ocher skin with her cream colored underjaw. He followed the line of the labial furrows extending toward her eyes and was struck with a sense of perfection in her design.

A slurred voice said, “What a fish, what a fish,” and he realized he was talking aloud.

He pushed off the floor, gathered his legs under him, and walked over to her. He crouched, resting a hand on the shark head. He wanted to go where she’d been. To see what she’d seen, to swim in her world. To live it.

Jonah forced open the single window and pushed the door ajar to let in fresh air. Moths and mosquitoes came into the room, and their shadows flickered on the ceiling near the naked lightbulb. Jonah started cutting out the shark’s jaws.

Two hours later, Seed staggered upstairs poisonously drunk. The room reeked of urea, and the mangled jawless shark head lay unrecognizable on the newspaper spread on the floor. Blood smeared Jonah’s hands and forearms red as paint.

He sat at the table on the foot of his cot, bent over in concentration and sliced with a scalpel at a long shred of meat hanging from the jaws.

Seed walked into the room. “Looks like you killed somebody.”

“It’s like peeling an orange,” Jonah said. “You want to work long strands so you have leverage.”

“Fucking smells.” Seed almost fell on Jonah.

Jonah raised an arm to fend him off and the slippery jaws snapped shut on his right hand.

“Goddammit!” Jonah cursed. “That’s the third time that’s happened.” His hands and fingertips were slashed and cut from working with the cockscomb-shaped teeth while drunk. The disembodied jaws were slimy and hard to hold on to. They bit him whenever he mishandled them, as if defiant even in death. Carefully, he once again worked his hand free from the shark jaws.

Seed swayed but made his way to the bathroom. Jonah heard him urinate, drink tap water, then fall down. Then Jonah heard him vomiting. A lot of oilfield divers were falling-down drunks onshore. After weeks swallowing their fear and risking their lives underwater, the urge to get drunk built up in some men like a volcano getting ready to blow. Jonah let himself drink the first two nights ashore, but that was it. And sometimes he didn’t drink at all. Just wasn’t in the mood. Other divers drank every day and every night when they weren’t working. And the boozing got so bad with some divers that it cut their careers short and ruined their lives.

Seed looked to be one of that kind. Easy to understand, easy to forget.

Jonah, following Porter’s instructions for cleaning the jaws, used the knife to slice off the large pieces of flesh. Then with the scalpel, he painstakingly whittled away all the remaining meat. He carved off strips of the slippery, pinkish flesh until the cartilage, pearly and moist underneath, lay fully exposed. Bit by bit, the contours of the jaws emerged like a sculpture from clay, thick curved ribs with row upon row of fantastic sharp teeth. Somehow, when he was done, the jaws looked even bigger and gloriously wicked.

He held them up to the light and examined his work, turning them around to all angles. He saw no more tissue to cut: the jaws were defleshed enough. He pried off the bucket lid and lowered them into the hydrogen peroxide to whiten. Jonah dipped his hands in the bucket to push the foaming jaws all the way under, and the cuts on his hands stung.

When Seed staggered out of the bathroom he pulled off his shirt and bunched it up, revealing his scars and tattoos. He stretched out on the floor in the corner of the room with his shirt under his head. Resting a forearm across his eyes, he said, “Thanks, Jonah.”

Jonah nodded.

“You’re all I have,” Seed said. He started to snore.

Jonah watched a mosquito land on Seed’s chest. Seed was in a dead-drunk sleep and felt nothing.

For a time, Jonah stood in the open door frame and listened to the voices below in the parking lot. The sky had become clear and starry and the men across the street working in the fabricator warehouse had finally finished welding for the night.

When Jonah turned around he was startled to see Seed looking like he belonged in a hospital ward. He had turned on his side and was now curled up facing Jonah sound asleep. Naked from the waist up, Seed lay on the hard floor like an unwanted dog in an animal shelter. He had no pillow and no blanket and his burn scars appeared somehow unhealed in the dim light—a permanent reminder of the unspeakable cruelty of his childhood. His eyes were swollen black and blood had crusted around the nostrils of his crooked, broken nose. A small spot of vomit drooled from the corner of his mouth. Yet most shocking and upsetting of all, was the way Seed, a grown man with big calloused hands, sucked his thumb like a small child comforting himself. While in his other hand he gripped his knife. Ready, even in his sleep, to fight to the death to stay in the same loveless world that had by all accounts tortured him, scorned him, driven him insane, all but killed him.

The sight of Seed filled Jonah with an old sadness. And brought up his own bad memories. Why did people do this to each other? How could parents do this to their own children?

But the sight also made Jonah wary and afraid, and he did not want to sleep with Seed in the room. Better to stay up all night.

At dawn Seed sat up, pulled on his shirt, and walked out of the room without saying a word. Birds were making a racket in the trees when Jonah finally shut the door, locked it, and turned out the lights. In the darkness he lay down on his cot and instantly fell asleep.


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Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea 

by Howard Butcher