As always, Floyd Betts rides into town alone. He arrives for his father’s funeral, but he is returning to Galveston, Texas, with two orphaned siblings he has rescued. Nellie, who is descended from a long line of witches, has visions from other people’s minds. Hank, her impulsive younger brother, just wants to break out his outsized revolver.
Along the way home, Floyd, Nellie, and Hank encounter a dubious traveling salesman, Professor Finn, and his henchman, Kentucky Jim. They are struggling to capture a fish-man in order to put him on cruel display. When Nellie taps into the peril of the gentle Charlie Fish, Floyd’s makeshift family expands to include the lost, two-legged amphibian.
With the circus charlatans in pursuit, ominous winds are picking up from an impending hurricane. Meanwhile, all Charlie Fish wants is to return to his home at sea.
The Legend of Charlie Fish opens with lean, clean prose that reads like Raymond Chandler whittled down by a Texas wind. Our protagonist, Floyd, is a familiar enough Western type: the taciturn man who spends his time worrying a whole string of regrets but who is–when pressed–driven by a sense of innate decency.
We see this sliver of the inner Floyd when he returns home to bury his father and finds himself faced with two orphans, shunned by their small town community because their mother was a witch. Floyd takes the kids with him, and heads back to Galveston.
Everything about the plot so far has us set up for a kind of Odd Couple comedy, with the hardened bachelor and the two plucky, precocious children tagging along, but it doesn’t take long for the real plot to surface.
Nellie, the sister, is clearly gifted with psychic abilities, a fact that Floyd mostly takes in stride. He has little choice, because on the road, Nellie’s abilities direct her to a call for help, and we enter a wholly other book.
Two colorful villains are restraining Charlie Fish, a humanoid fish man whose telepathic cry for help leads Floyd into the center of a conflict he never chose. But, in the end, he finds himself riding on toward Galveston with Charlie Fish and the orphans in the back of his wagon.
Trouble keeps coming, of course. Behind them lie the scoundrels, vengeful and greedy and half-human. Ahead lies the largest storm in Galveston history. These two forces mix with a blossoming romance between Floyd and his landlady, as well as a remarkably sweet found-family story, and it all explodes in a dramatic climax.
My experience of reading Charlie Fish was one of absolute confidence in Rountree’s prose and instincts. No matter what odd turns the narrative took, I was more than happy to follow along, sometimes just pleased to follow the sharp back and forth of the dialogue or to settle into the comfortable rhythms of characters finding their places amongst each other.
Josh Rountree is, for the most part, a short story writer, and The Legend of Charlie Fish certainly maintains the shape of an extended short story, but like the best short stories, there is a certain beauty in the condensed form, in the Aristotelean unity of the tale.
In the end, even after the story achieves its final shape, the reader wants more, and the book certainly leaves the door open for a whole universe of Charlie Fish stories, a universe where families are lost and found and where magic is real, if unpredictable.