Just before the halfway point of the novel, Nichol Dance vows to shoot Thomas Skelton if he attempts to compete with the two established guides of Key West, Dance himself and Faron Carter. He communicates this vow in a face-to-face confrontation, yet Skelton continues with his plan. As a result, the plot and the basis for the reader’s interest are extremely simple. The two men seem headed for an ultimate, mortal confrontation, neither of them willing to compromise or be deflected from his declared purpose. The sense of violent inevitability is increased by the violence of Dance’s personality—he has already killed one person and come close to killing a second—and by Skelton’s strangely quiet, persevering stubbornness. This conflict is the core of the novel. In the first half, the plot is more improvised and dense than in the second half, as the conflict comes into focus—once Dance has made his vow to kill Skelton if he intrudes on his territory as fishing guide, the novel’s action becomes so simple it is perhaps simplistic. It is almost as if the author has communicated to the reader: A violent confrontation will inevitably occur, read on and see how it happens. The guiding hand of the author, discreet in the first half, becomes prominent in the second. The denouement is accompanied by real suspense, yet a true sense of inevitability is lacking.
There are three main reasons for this. The mode of the novel is basically comic—or wry, caustic comic—and this prevents most of the characters from attaining three-dimensional solidity or “roundness.” Skelton’s character is the most fully developed, and the novel charts his development from youth to manhood; his identity...
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