Clarion-Ledger and Hattiesburg American Mississippi Book Review
A REVIEW OF
By Alexander Blevens
Paperback, 208 pages
Many bad choices collide in Mississippi Gulf Coast novel
By Timothy T. Isbell
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
For every choice we make, good or bad, there are consequences. Such consequences are not only felt by those who make them but by loved ones and future generations. This is the message Alexander Blevens gives in his novel “Bycatch”.
The novel chronicles a bad decision made by Airman Rex Thompson at Da Nang Airbase in 1970 during his service in Vietnam. Thompson’s decision not only affected him but also Captain Nguyen Duc Dung (Don Nguyen).
Flash forward 23 years in Biloxi, Thompson’s sons, Jake and Pigeon, make an even worse decision by scuttling a shrimp boat once owned by their father. The boat has been purchased from the bank by Nguyen. The Thompson boys’ choice inadvertently brings about Nguyen’s death. Now, scuttling the boat sparks a murder investigation.
Blevens weaves a tale involving greed, war, prejudice, revenge, murder, hate, regret, failure, alcoholism, justice, faith, love and ultimately forgiveness. It also includes the Vietnam War, the plight of the boat people escaping Vietnam, immigration to the United States and ultimately a new home in Biloxi.
After a brief stop in Galveston, Texas, “Bycatch” is primarily set in Vietnam and Biloxi. For anyone who has lived, visited or is just familiar with Biloxi, Blevens has done an excellent job of capturing the character of the town, its people and customs.
For the Biloxi novice, Blevens introduces newcomers to steamy hot summers, moonlit nights on Back Bay, shoo flies and live oaks, a shrimp harvest, the Fais do-do and the Blessing of the Fleet.
It isn’t until Nguyen’s daughter, Anh Truong, finds a journal by her murdered father that all the pieces of Thompson and Nguyen come together. The reader finds out the choices made by both men and the consequences that are now being felt by their families.
I enjoyed a walk down memory lane as the city of Biloxi became a vital character in this tale. Blevens used Coast landmarks appropriate for the time of this story. Such places as the Tivoli hotel, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, “chopsticks” shrimp boats, Biloxi’s East End, Point Cadet, even the fish meal factories along the waterfront in east Biloxi, brought back memories. Such memories came back in sights, smells, sounds and personal experiences of a time before casinos and Hurricane Katrina.
I particularly enjoyed references to the Vietnamese along the Mississippi Gulf Coast as I have my own connection to that community.
“Bycatch” is well written, well researched and a good read. On these hot summer days, “Bycatch” is a good book to read under a somewhat cool shade with a pitcher of iced tea.
Tim Isbell is a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts/Knight Foundation Grant for his project documenting the Vietnamese people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the Sun Herald in Biloxi. He is a photojournalist with 38 years’ experience at The Sun Herald, The Brookhaven Daily Leader, The Natchez Democrat, The Tuscaloosa News and as a freelancer. He is the author of four books “Gettysburg: Sentinels of Stone”, “Vicksburg: Sentinels of Stone”, “Shiloh & Corinth Sentinels of Stone” and the “Mississippi Gulf Coast”.
Mississippi Episcopalian Book Review
Volume 147, Issue 7, July 2022
Book Review by Scott Lenoir
San Francisco Book Review
By Alexander Blevens
TouchPoint Press, $15.99, 244 pages, Format: Trade
Star Rating: 5 / 5
It’s 1970 and twenty-three-year-old Senior Airman Rex Thompson, on his second tour in Vietnam, is about to improve his prospects for the future. He opens the safe he has access to and helps himself to $46,000, money the US government has sent to the South Vietnamese Army for their use. Unfortunately, he’s caught in the act by Captain Nguyen Duc Dung. Rather than arrest Thompson, Dung makes him return the money to the safe and then reports the incident to his superiors. Later that same day, Rex goes back, and this time undetected, he takes the money from the safe.
When the theft is discovered, Dung is charged with “the failure to safeguard the valuable assets of the armed forces of South Vietnam,” but rather than be court-martialed, he’s sent on a military suicide mission. These events set the stage for the tragic unfolding of Bycatch by Alexander Blevens.
Flash forward twenty-three years to a dark night on Biloxi Bay as two young men work to scuttle a shrimp trawler resting at anchor just off shore. The trawler once belonged to Rex. He operated it with his two sons, Jake and Pigeon, until it was repossessed due to his drinking and gambling. It was bought from the bank by none other than Captain Dung, the same man who took the rap for Thompson’s theft. Dung is now Don Nguyen and a prosperous shrimper in Biloxi. Rex has disappeared and Jake and Pigeon, motivated by misguided revenge, are scuttling the boat.
But when the boat sinks, the new owner goes down with it, and Jake and Pigeon inadvertently become murderers. As an investigation gets underway, Rex resurfaces sober and saved. It doesn’t take him long to figure out what happened and who the murderers are. How can he save his sons from lengthy prison terms when, ultimately, he is responsible?
Meanwhile, as Nguyen’s daughter struggles to come to terms with her father’s death, she begins to learn more about his past and the role Rex played in it. But rather than condemn Rex and his sons, she seeks closure by trying to find something positive that can be salvaged from this tragic event, these damaged people, and their broken lives.
Bycatch by Alexander Blevens is a big, entertaining story that speaks to universal themes of family, honor, culture, faith, and history. The narrative is supported by numerous realistic characters and an impeccably researched plot that is flawlessly structured and presented.
Midwest Book Review
By Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer
Think ‘murder thriller’, and a traditional genre read replete with suspense and action come to mind. But Bycatch is all this and more, incorporating politics, place, and connections between past and present as a fisherman’s murder in Mississippi becomes connected to events in Vietnam decades earlier.
Rex Thompson has long avoided discussing or acknowledging his role in events that happened ‘in country’ all those years ago. Until now, when in 1993 a series of events draw him (however reluctantly) to confront the past’s ongoing influence on present-day events.
Bycatch is not your traditional murder mystery. Embedded in its pages is a sense of place, from the shrimp fishing boats and community to the emergence of a damning wartime journal that reveals secrets long hidden and perhaps best kept under water. Literally.
As Rex’s family and their present-day choices are impacted by his sordid experiences, Rex must make difficult choices about whether to continue burying his secrets or indict himself by exposing them to the world.
Alexander Blevens creates a moving draw with a story that operates on moral and ethical levels against the backdrop of an unusual murder mystery.
He includes political changes and conflicts as the Vietnamese incursion on the local shrimping industry brings the war of the past home in an unexpectedly different way, and he also includes the trails and scenes that emerge from this past to present vivid memories to a survivor that only wants to walk away from his poor choices.
The psychological inspections are as astute as the unfolding dilemmas that embrace father, sons, and the community: “You felt guilty. You wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass if you had found this out while you were still bending and thinking only of yourself. But now that you’re with God, everything’s changed.”
Readers who anticipate and look for a whodunit alone may be surprised at the twists and turns this story takes. It represents not the usual progressive investigative piece, but a foray into responsibility, choice, and action that places the protagonist in the position of being a flawed hero.
The result is a story that is highly recommended not just for genre mystery readers, but for those with a special interest in social and spiritual revelations. These buffet protagonist Rex on all sides and ultimately leads to many surprise revelations and new resolutions.
Mystery libraries will want to encourage non-genre readers to partake of this unusually multifaceted story.