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The Reading Life: Little Yelps of Glee

Dwight Garner
October 30, 2009

Is American culture pushing its young people “toward the most ghostly kinds of work”? That was one of the contentions in Matthew B. Crawford’s recent best seller, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” and it resonated with a lot of people.

Jessica DuLong, the author of a new book called My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson (Free Press, $26), was working a ghostly job herself—at a bubble-era company—until she decided to leave it early in 2001 to become a fireboat engineer on the Hudson River. She’s never looked back, and she details her often exhilarating experiences in her very fine and gutsy book.

Ms. DuLong is a confident and sensual writer, as perceptive about small matters on a boat as was Anthony Bourdain, in “Kitchen Confidential,” about everyday events in a professional kitchen. Here’s Ms. DuLong, for example, using her nostrils: “The familiar huff of diesel scrapes at the back of my throat. By now I can tease apart the smell the way some people discern hints of oak, cherry, or chocolate in a fine wine—an exhaust-fume bouquet wedded with a richer base note of lube oil and a trace of bilge bacteria.”

And after managing a difficult tugboat docking, an ecstatic Ms. DuLong writes: “My fingers click the running-light switches into the Off position. My thighs thrum with leftover electricity, soaked in their adrenaline bath. The ink I scratch into the logbook, “20:30, lines secure Brooklyn Navy Yard,” gets lost in the dusk. But my heart gives a little yelp of glee as my head pauses in the sheer joy of a lesson learned, a goal accomplished, an intention satisfied.”

Readers will feel their own little yelps of glee all over My River Chronicles.