You learn many things while reading “The Last Whalers”: how to make rope and wooden ships; how to track a whale that has submerged; how pods of whales form walls with their tails to protect themselves from hunters.
One thing you learn, in squeamish detail, is how to carve up a dead beached whale. “By the end,” Clark writes, “only the flippers retained their skin, so that they rested against the flesh like mittened hands trying to cover a naked torso.”
The piles of whale meat are divided almost equally among the population. Anthropologists have called Lamaleran culture, Clark writes, “one of the world’s most cooperative and generous, a necessity when it comes to coordinating dozens of men to defeat colossal whales and then equitably share the bounty.”
Modernity, in the form of capitalism and new ways to sell their catch, threatens this cooperative culture. And what of threatening the whales themselves? Clark notes that several hundred thousand sperm whales exist in the wild, and suggests that “the tribe has little impact on the animal’s global population.”
Writing about Joseph Conrad, George Orwell said that his “most colorful passages may have dealt with the sea, but he is at his most grown-up when he touches dry land.” It’s possible to say something similar about Clark, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic, among other publications.
He closely tracks the lives of many Lamalerans, male and female, young and old, and he weaves their stories together with a history of the tribe and its beliefs. He manages to make this tribe’s dilemmas universal — no small feat.
The book’s central character is probably Jon, an orphan who is taunted because his absent father was not a Lamaleran. Jon longs to be a harpooner, but he is too impatient and is cruelly rebuffed by other men. Feeling estranged from his people, he debates fleeing to Jakarta, where his girlfriend works as a maid.