High Water, by Richard Bissell


When you are out on the boats you think a lot about things that are over on the land, things you never bother to think about at all when you are there. The girl problem, for one thing, becomes something you live with, and think about, and talk about. Oh man, the millions of hours that have been spent since the Egyptians or somebody invented boats, by men and boys sitting around on deck and in messrooms and bunkrooms and engine rooms talking about girls. There are a lot of topics covered but it will come around to girls almost every time, especially amongst the deck hands and wipers and other younger generation; a whole lot of your older men have had enough of the subject and some to spare, and would a whole lot rather talk about squirrel hunting.

We were sitting around the messroom in all that water up above Cape au Gris someplace. It was midnight. The boys going off watch were setting there thinking about whether to peel an orange or go to bed. The boys coming on watch were yawning and stretching and pouring coffee and blowing on it.

On the After Watch, which works twelve to six, and which I now had since Casey made the changeover, for deck hands I had Zero and Arkansaw and Swede. Zero was nothing. He was just a guy someplace between twenty-five and fifty in a pair of dirty pants and a denim jacket. He ate and slept and got up and followed the boys around and did his work all right but hardly ever said a word. He probably had less personality, so to speak, than any deck hand on the whole upper river. I don’t know what he looked like.

Arkansaw on the other hand was a boy with plenty of noise. He had opinions, facts, stories, jokes, reminiscences, and when he run out of any of these just to freak the silence he would whistle or play the harmonica to raise the dead. He used to tell funny stories about Arkansaw, but we will spare the reader by not listing any of them here. Frankly I can’t get too much humor out of these hillbilly comics, but some people simply dote on it. Arkansaw wore bib overalls and a railroad engineer’s style shop cap of blue with large white polka dots on it. He would kind of lose some of the worst of his accent after forty or fifty days on the boat; then he would come back from ten-day vacation down home and it would be so thick again you couldn’t understand him at all for two or three days until it had wore off a little. He was the type that calls his wife “waaf” and an egg an “aig” and all that crap. To us Northern boys he sounded like he had been listening to too damn many hillbilly radio programs and was just putting it on. I still think Southern people could talk like normal human beings if they wanted to, but they think it is cute to talk like that. Arkansaw also had a clasp knife with a spring blade that he was supposed to of killed somebody with down in Helena. All I can say is, I’ve been to Helena quite a bit on the oil tows, and he could kill two or three dozen in that town and it couldn’t help but be an improvement.

The other one on my watch was the Swede. He was what the name indicates–a Swede. You no doubt know the rest. He came from the outskirts of Two Harbors Minnesota and all his folks were Great Lakes people. He was a Great Lakeser too and went out on the ore boats when he was only a kid, but to get him to tell about it was an honest chore as he had about as much gift of gab as the average telephone pole and conversation was like drawing teeth with a pair of pliers. The Swede was a big lunkhead like all Swedes in other words, and also like all Swedes he had boats and the water built into him alongside of his blood vessels. And although a lunkhead, he was a good old lunkhead, “loyal and true,” and he would work until he dropped. He was always wanting me to come up to Two Harbors. He was going to take me deer hunting and all that and I had a notion I would go sometime.

Well, that was my watch–Zero, Arkansaw, and the Swede.

Comments–by Elmore Leonard from Rediscoveries II:

I told Bob Nally at lunch in Cape Girardeau that Richard Bissell had influenced my style more than any other writer with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fact that I learned to write studying Hemingway, inspired and encouraged by a style that appeared easy to imitate….

About the time I realized Hemingway’s views of life in general and mine weren’t compatible I discovered Richard Bissell and heaved a great sigh of relief. Look–his work said–you can keep it simple, be specific, sound authentic, even ungrammatical if you want, and not act as though your words are cut in stone.

But I discussed Bissell in Cape Girardeau from some gray memory that his work had changed my thinking about writing, giving the idea that I could adapt his style to my sound and within a million words or so have a style of my own.

It wasn’t until I got home and began rereading Bissell that I realized what a profound effect his work has had on mine: not in themes or settings but in the development of the attitude we seem to share about people’ the idea of the author getting down in there with his people, because he likes them, and letting them tell the story. Bissell showed me you could write a book without it looking as if it was written.

… Bissell’s skill in bringing the reader onto that towboat and into the messroom and out on the barges is the book’s strength. But it’s also a good story that builds with the rising water, dangers faced and Duke falling in love with a girl they rescue from the rook of a flooded fishing camp. It’s high adventure told low-key, not the least bit plotty, with Bissell maintaining his riverman’s tone throughout. High Water was published more than fifty years ago but I swear it holds up. A few of the odd expressions might be dated, but for the most part the sound is regional rather than recently archaic.

Find a Copy

High Water, by Richard Bissell
Boston: Little, Brown, 1954

8 thoughts on “High Water, by Richard Bissell

  1. I note in the comment on the cover, “nice that the flood…” — I’ve featured this book in a show I wrote about a couple of diaries I found in a thrift store. The show starts with a discussion about books about water – “High Water” being one of them – I call the book a trashy novel (which it really isn’t… though the cover is rather salacious) and that, “… you know it’s a trashy novel because you’ve got this half naked woman and her chicken being rescued from a rooftop by TWO men…”

  2. I’m impressed: I doubted that anyone would ever catch the comment.

    And no, it’s not the least bit trashy — in fact, it’s really a fine piece of writing.

  3. At the this moment I am in my bunk on a tugboat up here in Puget Sound, Washington. I have just finished reading the “Death of Shorty” in “Fifty Great American Short Stories” and this inspired me to do a little poking around on line which led me to this web page. It seems that no has been here since 14NOV2007 but I will press on. The comment about the half naked woman and her chicken being rescued by TWO men has me busting a gut. Appreciating the small detail of the presence of the chicken tells that David K. has got “that” sense of humor.
    This is a four man tugboat that does mostly tanker worker up in the North Sound refineries. The way Bissell describes his crew is authentic to my ear and rings so true. The “Death of Shorty” stirred up some ghosts for me. I can name handful of guys I have sailed with and have since drowned. One in particular was the same age as I and had kids the same age and he fell off the Barge #214 in the Duwamish River and they found him 45 days later. My little brother was interning with KIRO radio in Seattle and was covering the story with a veteran KIRO reporter. He called me at four in the morning and when I answered the phone he said , “OH good, your home”. I asked why’s that? And he said that a 27 year Crowley employee was missing in the harbor. I replied, “It’s not me, my brother, It’s not me”. That was 27 years ago.
    Anyhow, just some thoughts to throw out there and perhaps some will read this in 2024. I will though make it my mission to find some of these Bissell books.

  4. Well, it’s March 15,2017 , some fifteen months later, and I am still in my bunk up here in Puget Sound and boy is it raining hard outside, loud enough to hear over the drone of the diesel generator…Anyhow, I did buy and read “Highwater” and it was a good read with spot on attention to detail, example the mention of “Carlyle & Fitch” brand of searchlight. I still love the cover with the chickens..I guess that Richard P. Bissell also wrote “The Pajama Game” which is playing in Seattle last month at the 5th Avenue Theatre”……I will check I suppose on June 15 th, 2018 to see if anyone checks in here on the “Neglected Comments” page..I guess that’s why they call it this…Hello…Hellloooo!!!

  5. I just finished High Water and thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of years ago I had run across Elmore Leonard’s comment so I read the book with Mark Twain in the title and liked it alot. Pajama Game (Doris Day in the movie, OMG, I was 14-15) is based on Bissell’s book 7 1/2 Cents about a strike in a pajama factory. His parents ran just such a factory. I’ll surely try to find some of his other books because he is obviously a fine novelist. The expected that his description of life on the river boat was very authentic.

  6. Read Bissell as a kid, and am now 80, and have lived in CA near my entire adult life, right after the Marine Corps. I still have “High Water”, “A Stretch on the River”, and “7-1/2 Cents” on my shelves though. Born and raised in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Ill., one of those often noted by Bissell, and probably one of the reasons I read him early (and re-read him late). He definitely knew what those river towns like Alton were all about, in addition to knowing the life on the tugs and barges that I used to watch coming through the locks, when I was a kid. Like James T. Farrell (another of my youthful favorites), he also knew just how real people talk. Yeah, Hemingway was a favorite, but there were “lesser lights” too that I’m sure glad to have known, when I was young.

Leave a Comment