From the cover of "The Boatbuilder" by Daniel Gumbiner
From the cover of "The Boatbuilder" by Daniel Gumbiner

‘The Boatbuilder,’ a novel of the opioid crisis set in Marin

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“The Boatbuilder,” the first novel by Bay Area native Daniel Gumbiner, has been long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction, the National Book Foundation announced Sept. 14.

Set in a small Northern California town, Gumbiner’s novel tells a story of an injured young man who is struggling through an opioid addiction while being mentored by a master boat builder.

The craftsman helps the young man “learn how to rebuild and sustain his own life in this novel about recovery, redemption and self-reliance,” the National Book Foundation judges wrote. Gumbiner’s novel, published in July, was one of 368 works of fiction submitted for this year’s awards and is one of four debut novels out of the 10 long-listed.

“The book is quiet, gentle, thoughtful and set to its own rhythm,” Kristina Kearns, editorial director at S.F.-based publisher McSweeney’s, told J. after the announcement. “Set against the backdrop of our national opioid crisis, it’s also the story of someone trying to find their own way … [This book] beautifully takes the statistics away from the national crisis and focuses on the struggle itself.”

Gumbiner, 30, was born in San Francisco and moved to Marin County with his family when he was 10. The Gumbiners were members of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and then Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where he had his bar mitzvah. He graduated from Redwood High School in Larkspur and earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 2011.

Always an avid reader, he worked at a bookstore during high school, volunteered at the literacy nonprofit 826 Valencia and interned at McSweeney’s, the nonprofit, independent publishing house founded by writer Dave Eggers.

He began writing seriously about six years ago, Gumbiner said by phone from Las Vegas, where he works as managing editor of Believer, a creative arts and culture magazine published by the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Author Daniel Gumbiner
Author Daniel Gumbiner

Three years ago, the California Sunday Magazine published Gumbiner’s profile of Bob Darr, a master boat builder who inspired the character Alejandro in his novel. Darr was a legendary figure in West Marin and Sonoma County, where he taught a Sunday boatbuilding class that was part craft, part philosophy and part environmental awareness. Gumbiner, who confesses to “a romantic interest in boats,” took the class.

While the protagonist in the “The Boatbuilder,” 28-year-old Eli Koenigsberg (or Berg, as he is known), has much in common with the author, Gumbiner said he was never addicted to opioids. He said he took them as part of the treatment for recurrent headaches he suffered — like Berg, as the result of a sports injury — but “was very careful” not to become reliant on them.

Instead, he extensively researched opioid addiction while writing the book.

“The book is about opioid addiction, yes, but at its core, it is about chronic pain,” he said. “They are bound up with and reinforce each other. And there is always an emotional aspect when pain is chronic.”

He believes the opioid element of the story has resonated with readers because it’s such a common experience these days.

“There is a reason so many people are taking them: opioids really work for pain,” he said. “And I think many readers also relate to having something that is painful every single day that doesn’t respond to whatever strategies we apply to it.”

Alejandro, the boat builder, offers meaningful support and guidance that is not necessarily a solution; Berg still has to rise to the challenge of finding his own kind of peace with his life.

“The boat building gives Berg a new framework for understanding the pain. But it doesn’t necessarily alleviate it,” Gumbiner said. “He learns to think about his life in a different way.”

Asked about his book being long-listed for the award, Gumbiner replied, “I’m honestly so honored … I would be thrilled to win the award, but right now I’m just allowing myself to be happy. I feel like I’m playing with house money a little bit.”

While the book’s themes are not specifically Jewish, Gumbiner said, “Judaism has taught me to look upon the oppressed and the suffering with compassion, and that’s certainly a perspective that informs my work.”

Finalists for the award will be named on Wednesday, Oct. 10, and the winners will be announced Nov. 14.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.