by Alexander Pyles
What happens when a merman becomes a literal fish out of water, in order to find his father? Benjamin DeVos explores this through a twist of an old trope in HUMAN FISH. Born of a trout and man, our half-man, half-fish hero will seek his answers in the Los Angeles dregs. He doesn’t understand the world of man, but he is about to receive a crash course. A bizzaro journey from start to finish, DeVos gives readers a brief and piercing glimpse of ourselves and the world we have constructed.
Few bizzaro stories attempt to be as socially revealing and relevant as HUMAN FISH. From the beginning, DeVos sets up the Human Fish to comment on humanity’s activities for better or worse. After all, isn’t the sea where humanity continually dumps their waste and other byproducts? We open with our hero in limbo working at a dolphin show, before glimpsing of what his past life was like beneath the waves. What’s interesting, is that his life before was also hardly idyllic, caught between two worlds, as literal as it is figurative, he is drawn to the shore to find his father.
What finally pushes Human Fish over the edge is how his drug-dealing partnership with a sea turtle, goes sour. His partner gets high on its own supply of “white sand” and dies from overdosing. A classic moment of bizzaro fiction, this catalyzes Human Fish’s choice to leave his watery world and enter the world of his father, the land of man.
This isn’t a book that paints humanity kindly by any means
From here Human Fish flounders, finding work eventually at a dolphin show and falls in love with a stripper named, Destiny. This is where we find him and the story resumes. What eventually follows is a cascade of random, and obviously bizarre events that lead Human Fish to his father, violence, and at the end of it all, hope.
What DeVos does extremely well is paint a bizzaro picture as casually as possible. Immediately the reader is immersed in the sea alongside Human Fish and we understand the world immediately. Of course Human Fish has a trout mother. Of course he hangs out with sharks. Of course he begins to deal cocaine to crabs and mollusks. This eases the reader into the harder parts and even more bizarre parts of the book later on. It’s the value of understatement. There are never fingers pointed at the surreal or otherwise bizzaro elements. Everything is accepted into the weird and wonderful, though sometimes grotesque world DeVos has built.
This isn’t a book that paints humanity kindly by any means though. DeVos spares no one in his book a decent description, instead allowing the full authenticity of beaten down humanity to fill these pages. It is a story about the marginalized, who like Human Fish have been pushed out from “normal” society. From the strippers at The Bearded Clam to the Hell’s Angels depicted, they are the worn out dregs, that Human Fish comes into contact with. The gritty noir feel to the prose enhances the almost detective nature of the book.
Which leads me to what I’ve always enjoyed with bizzaro is how it can be multiple genres at once or how it slides in and out of story tropes as easily as salmon go from river to sea and back again. HUMAN FISH is no different in this fashion. The core story is Human Fish finding his place and purpose in the world, but his journey goes from detective mystery, to travelogue to gangster noir. DeVos clearly knows these genres inside and out and does all of this in a mere 100+ pages.
Yet, what I did find at odds was that the book felt too brief by the end. The scenes move fast and furious and before we know it Human Fish is a lawyer and is attempting to solve the world’s problems and he is actually doing it. The ending leans entirely into a utopian vision that is both seemingly impossible, especially amid current circumstances and feels too easily won. Even when our hero and heroine are caught and on the brink, the events are solved without as much as a blink. The cathartic release Human Fish has over meeting his father and spending some time with him, does not feel complete, even by the end. This may just be the length and something this ambitious would have been enhanced with a few more pages.
What may be the true bizarre tension of the story, is that Human Fish cares enough about humanity to fix us. Despite his father being a complete failure.
Despite being mistreated and taken advantage of. For the love of a family that he never truly had, but for the family he might have. He brings both of his worlds together through sheer force and will. What some may see as the true bizzaro element of this work, is the last chapter in its entirety. Human Fish becomes the center, rather than the marginalized and transforms to a savior for not only the sea or humanity but the world.
At the end of all of this it seems, DeVos wants to leave readers with hope, because if the Human Fish, a being of the in-between, can dream, we can too.