Tubarão

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Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Urvi Kumbhat introduces Felipe Bomeny’s “TUBARÃO” from our Summer 2021 issue. You can purchase it here.

“Tubarão” is written in a series of titled vignettes as if each vignette were a story within itself. Bomeny’s prose has that quality—every sentence displays the care and satisfaction of an ending. Yet like any good ending, the sentences open outwards, suggest the dizzying world beyond the page, keep changing what precedes them: “Dudu is a diplomat’s son. He accumulates the names of countries and recites them.” The boy’s casual accumulation emphasizes his classed and racialized difference from Yeferson, who works for Dudu’s well-connected family.

In “Tubarão,” we follow the teenaged Dudu on vacation in Espírito Santo along with his ever-growing family: “some conspiracy of fringe uncles.” The wizened Colonel, who is Dudu’s grandfather, and other men of the family embark on a fishing trip particular to the family’s legacy and location in Brazil—they hunger for a shark. Somehow, this short story spans multiple histories and geographies over the span of a single fishing trip. Dudu is bored. To him, “It feels like those big holiday dinners at the kids’ table, on the periphery of the world of grown-ups, with their arbitrary rules, the small talk about tariffs and capital gains taxes.” Yet this fishing trip is an initiation into that world of adults and their rules, a ritual of bourgeois Brazilian masculinity—making the story a kind of bildungsroman. Through Dudu’s adolescent eyes, his own not-knowing, we see racism, extractive capitalism, and heteronormativity in their processes of normalization—we see the spectre of other lives to be gutted like the shark.

I chose this story not only for its tightly sewn, breathtaking prose, its formal ambition, and thematic weight, but also for the way it brings market forces, transnational cultural flows, and their particular histories into the narrative’s scope—the circulation of WhatsApp devotional images, Frozen-themed bikinis, the shopping mall in Vitória “where slaves and quince were once sold.” Yet the story never takes on the distance of the abstract—it is grounded firmly in the material: in the stink of mackerel heaps, the way fish “scales flutter like dandruff,” in Dudu’s changing body. Because this story embodies the vastness of a world, when the Colonel urinates into the Atlantic Ocean, he defiles more than we can see—in the end, we’re left with the unsettling smell of ammonia, the day’s catch hissing in a pan.

Tubarão

Sucessão

When the last of his baby teeth threaten to secede, Dudu Petruzzi is invited fishing. His grandfather, the Colonel, summons him to take his father’s place on the boat; Dudu’s father is upstairs in the master bedroom, indisposed with some tropical cold. The rest of the family huddles around the living room flatscreen, Adidas jerseys over Sunday slacks, fingers pinched with vibrato, flinging death threats at the referee. The Colonel announces they will set sail when the game ends.

Palmeiras are losing, down two goals, when Tio Gaetano arrives with a bottle of arak. The Colonel inspects the bottle, squinting at the label, its tiny glyphs and cedars.

“A little gift from our friends in the Middle East,” Gaetano winks. His arms are speckled with tattoos smudged from sun damage: zigzagging tribal waves, Mandarin characters that collapse on themselves. Dudu spots hammerheads on his uncle’s calf, flaccid imitations of sharks entombed in the photo albums of fishing trips.

Gaetano whirls around the room, exchanging kisses on the cheek with a drunkard’s charm. And there is Tio Arnaldo—Gaetano’s father, the Colonel’s middle brother—like a copy of the Colonel, except his hair is frostier and his jowls are tighter, botoxed. Dudu forgets who is older. He gives up on tracking the other uncles, blood relations in the gnarled family tree, and then business partners masquerading as relatives; men groping for memories tinged in sepia, men with faces like Roman busts, all canonized as tios, accelerating into old age. They all tell Dudu the same thing: they can remember when he was just a baby—and it was just yesterday you were this size, they gesture, always rehearsed like some conspiracy of fringe uncles.

Canja

Dona Magdalena is in the kitchen preparing the chicken soup, the uncooked chickens splayed over the edge of the cutting boards, wingtips tracing granite. She calls on her grandson to report the score every five minutes. He can’t leave before his cupful of soup, she insists.

Dudu coughs a little harder, the way his dad has coughed since the flight. A cough he thinks his uncles would cough after their cigars, fiercer than the coughs he has mastered at his school’s nurse’s office.

“Poor thing,” Dona Magdalena says. She looks tiny and birdlike, wrapped in wool in the Christmastime heat.
“The seawater will be good for you, my child.”

Dudu grimaces: if he wanted to fish, he could just download some discounted fishing simulator. He knows the Xbox, the newest version, is clumsily giftwrapped in the garage with all the other Christmas gifts.

Os apóstolos

The score is still two-nil at halftime. Dudu’s grandmother waddles to the sofa and prays furiously. Gaetano joins his aunt, their hands interlaced, hers mottled with archipelagoes of liver spots. He scrolls through a photo album on his iPhone. Pilgrims wade through the River Jordan. Their heads are wet and bowed in prayer. Soaked robes hug skin like cellophane. In one photo, Gaetano stretches his arms out, head tilted back, and a procession of believers tremble in the sluggish river. The woman next to Gaetano wears a pink shower cap with small Tweety Birds. She holds back tears.
“Christ was baptized in this exact spot,” he says. “We have it on DVD.”


“The things that happen in that part of the world—horrible, aren’t they? I see it all the time on the news,” says Dona Magdalena. Her devotion to the saints is ferocious, Old World. At least twice a day she sends her grandchildren devotional memes on WhatsApp: blurry images of the Virgin Mary and Christ, supplemented with cropped Bible passages. She forwards links about phone radiation and cancer cures, clips from Japanese game shows, commercials with farts. Most of the time Dudu ignores them.

“Auntie, don’t believe what you see on the news,” Gaetano says

Os homens cordiais

“Can we go already?” Dudu whines, competing with the kitchen clatter. He has the secret mission planned out for halftime, when the men slip into swimsuits. Yeferson could help him, could hide the Xbox in his room, and then they’d wrap it back up and return it to the garage before Christmas morning. The Consul coughs upstairs like a stage cue for Dudu to cough. His grandmother keeps purring, “Poor thing.” Steam screeches from an unattended pot; the house on the lagoon swells with the medicinal perfume of bay leaves.
Palmeiras concede again. When the spectators begin their retreat from the stadium, Tio Arnaldo curses the referees and then the video assistant referee, its cruel revisionism, its coordinated assassination of something beautiful and momentous. He pummels a throw pillow. Arnaldo’s brothers laugh.
The game ends four-one, and Dudu trudges out with the men to the private dock behind the swimming pool. He copies the men’s sluggish steps. Sock tans show through their sandals. Yeferson is already there aboard the Big Angler, crouched under the sun with his floppy khaki hat, polishing wooden accents by the dashboard, welcoming them. They all pronounce their English the Brazilian way: Biggie Engler.

“Moleque, are you gonna catch a shark today?” Yeferson asks, and Dudu nods weakly: it’s hard to tell when he’s joshing. The Colonel hands Yeferson a lukewarm lager. The boatswain mops his forehead with an oily rag. He whistles at the brutish dalmatians chained in the backyard, their howls whiny and plaintive. Dudu spots his cousins—all of them younger and in matching Frozen bikinis— lingering at the shallow end of the swimming pool. They wave back at the fishermen. Armored cars are already lined up out front; after their swim, the girls’ aunts will take them to the American- style shopping mall in Vitória, by the old city center, Baroque dioramas where slaves and quince were once sold.

Eyeing his cousins with envy, he musters a louder cough but it still sounds feeble. “Take good care of our little fisherman,” Dona Magdalena says. She approaches the boat and her grandson blushes with indignance. She has filled the cooler with beer, orange Fanta for the boy, ziplocked persimmons. The men would have left sooner, but the day limps with indolence, unhurried.

“Running on capixaba time,” Gaetano jokes as they board the boat. (And one day, Dudu, the diplomat’s son, will notice how each country likes to claim tardiness as a unique national characteristic.) The Colonel promises to return before the evening news.

Fortaleza

The day is still. At the meeting of the River Doce and the Atlantic, tankers leave the port of Tubarão with hauls of bauxite and steel. Surfers hesitate atop dwindled waves: the breeze is more suggestion than fact. The Big Angler creeps along the coast, past scratched granite cliffsides. Scrub speckles the terrain, tufts of dried palmetto spiking out like claw marks. Dudu likes imagining where snipers could fit into the scenery: he imagines them crouching behind the trees and the cactuses, waiting at the vantage point for his uncles’ heads to align. He kicks the side of the boat with his flip-flops and stubs his big toe. He wants to cry. He misses his Xboxes, the one back home in Brasília, and the one destined for the bottom of the Christmas tree.

Even after all of those holidays in Espírito Santo, this undulation still feels strange. The clouds dip low, the small mountains draped in unreality. (Dudu knows Brasília: flatness, asphalt.) At the meeting of the waters a fort peers atop a small island, propped by jagged rocks. With its back to the sun, the fort resembles the small houses with whitewashed walls in the fishermen’s village. All that Dudu knows about the fort—all that his grand- parents could summon from visits in early childhood, sandals choked with pebbles—is that it is old and Portuguese.

Tourists swarm the beaches. Armed with selfie sticks, they pose by the corroded cannons on the ramparts. TheBig Angler pulls away, and the tourists are reduced to blips, footnotes on the coast. All of it disappears: the beach vendors hawking oysters and young coconuts impaled with straws; laconic clouds; newish condominiums thrusting over the radium-sand beaches, where Arnaldo points out his firm’s latest projects; and then the pelicans, suspended in midair like helicopters. Dudu wonders aloud if, from here, he can see the soapstone Redeemer embracing Rio. Yeferson goads him yes, drawing him in for a noogie, until Arnaldo snaps that they’re too far away—a few hundred miles, in fact, as if to say: No, dummy, don’t listen to this babaca. Yeferson smirks. Dudu smirks back. Arnaldo wrests the binoculars back from the boy.

O baiano

Yeferson knows those warm waters long before the Colonel leaves the countryside for the coast. He specializes in hammerheads. And when the Colonel takes an interest in sharks at the height of the Médici years, Yeferson joins him as a spotter. He is paid in full, staying on after the first few expeditions, in command of the house on the lagoon whenever the Colonel and his family return to the house in the country, kept in the family’s assets for sentimental reasons. And so Yeferson settles into the house, in what was once a walk-in closet, an indentation in the wall.

Each holiday on the coast, Dudu asks why his Portuguese is so funny. Yeferson says he is from Polynesia, Amazonas, Niterói, Arabia: each time he picks a different place, the boy gently challenging him on each locale, asking, No, where are you really from?

Dudu is a diplomat’s son. He accumulates the names of countries and recites them. And each time, Yeferson nods yes, until one holiday, the Colonel—drinking but not yet drunk—shrugs and says that Yeferson is simply a guy from the Northeast, their shark hunter in their slice of the Atlantic.

To Dudu, Yeferson is practically family—he is nosso neguinho.

“And over there’s your neguinha,” Gaetano points out. He elbows Yeferson in the ribs. Discernible, faintly, is the statue of Iemanjá in the starfish tiara. Dudu’s great-aunt took him there on his last holiday in Espírito Santo. It was fine, he recalls. He keeps recalling. It was boring, he decides.

The tourists are back. They congregate by the goddess’s feet, placing white wreaths by her ice-blue heels. She stands tiptoe atop a graffitied pedestal. A fleet of paper boats set sail under her gaze

“I’m Pentecostal,” Yeferson says.

Defesa interna

The granite slopes are faint now, set like mossy shoulders. Dudu feels his stomach clench. The water deepens detergent blue.

“You know what they say about international waters,” Arnaldo says. Dudu waits for him to finish the joke but the men simply laugh, crack open more beer. They peel off their striped jerseys. Bellies hang over their sungas. The Colonel rummages through a lunchbox and produces an oak box with a laurel wreath etched in the center. There are six cacao-colored cigars nestled inside, each with a holographic Habana sticker. Gaetano sniffs a cigar with hesitation.

“I’ve always thought Nicaraguans are better, personally,” says Tio Arnaldo. He’s an expert on these things. Dudu nods in solemn agreement.

“Look at us, just like mosquitoes,” Gaetano says. “Smoking the good communist stuff, huh? Tio, don’t tell me you’ve got Venezuelan hookers down in the hold?”

Arnaldo, the Colonel, and Gaetano sit in a semicircle, cackling, the space between them swollen with silver smoke.

Lembrança

Two hours on the boat, and all they catch are a couple of baitfish. Hardly dinner. Dudu was promised sharks. He thinks of the photos and framed newspaper clippings by the mounted sailfish in the living room. Younger versions of the Colonel and his brothers and nephews—all sharing the same circumflex eyebrows and none of them potbellied yet—stand on the deck next to Yeferson, a little darker than them. Crosses dangle on their wooly chests. They celebrate with Heinekens and thumbs-ups. Each photo contains a shark too large to fit fully into the frame, each shark affixed to a steel crucifix with pulleys and thick cables.

“Grandpa, when are we gonna catch a shark?” Dudu asks. He decides he wants a sharktooth necklace like the ones the Hollister models wear on gift bags.


The Colonel simply smiles, polishes off the last of the arak with a gentle swig. He smiles a Mona Lisa smile. “We’ll see,” he says.

He urinates furiously into the Atlantic.

A matriarca

Dona Magdalena left the interior decades ago, a little after the Goulart years. Turned her back on that Maria Teresa yellow house on the edge of the River Doce, in the town that shared its name with a Lombard saint and a Tupi word that eludes translation; and she left behind the nights freckled with stars and the orange groves, picnics of blood sausage and sugarcane rum. One day the Colonel came to pick her up in a new Peugeot that kicked up clouds of corn-colored dust. He said they were going to Vitória, where the military government and Vale, the state-owned mining company, were building the city of the future. His younger brothers Arnaldo and Emiliano would follow him from the hamlet to the coast.

Magdalena remembers her son on her lap, both of them marveling at the sparkling lagoons and at all the bridges under construction, soaring overpasses spanning tiny archipelagoes. Her husband tells her she will love her life in the city of the future. So she masters the city’s accent, its nauseated vowels and lilts, but she never abandons her country superstitions. And when she narrates the family history of how they left for the coast, she omits, among other things (a curl of American whiskey on his lips, the faint rouge on his shirt collar), how hard she sobbed on the drive over.

Bolsa Família

Fishing is overrated—boring, Dudu decides. It feels like those big holiday dinners at the kids’ table, on the periphery of the world of grown-ups, with their arbitrary rules, the small talk about tariffs and capital gains taxes. Dudu’s father, The Consul—a man who takes specific pride in his role as the apolitical one in the family—usually declares no politics at the dinner table, but by dessert everyone (except for Dudu’s great-aunt, the suspected leftist) is in furious agreement: the country is going to shit, has already gone to shit.

“That’s what happens when you give handouts for votes,” says Gaetano, smearing his sunscreen. He sees himself as more of a crusader on social issues. Themen approach politics and similar subjects in that enigmatic language of handshakes and contracts—Gaetano always searching for a quip, some entrance to the conversation like an overeager student. Occasionally he asks Dudu to help him prove a point to the Colonel.


“The schools are normalizing homosexual behaviors, right?” And here, Gaetano mimics an anus with pinched thumb and forefinger, tracing it with his other hand, a play-acting of a sex-ed class where teachers unfurl condoms over bananas, or whatever it is that the teachers do with their gay kits. (Like his older cousins, Gaetano attended a private Jesuit school growing up.)


The Colonel interjects, “Enough with that nonsense. More importantly, do they teach 1964 as a coup or as the Revolution?”

Dudu shrugs. His parents send him to the American School in Brasília and he is taught American history. He says this matter-of-factly, sitting down next to Yeferson, in his spot beside a smelly heap of mackerel. Another reason fishing sucks, Dudu thinks: in Yeferson’s room, there’s no fish smell. And there’s no seasickness inside, and Yeferson has a PlayStation there: the PlayStation, the original, from before Dudu was even born. A sputtering, overheating console: a real piece of shit. Yeferson owns Street Fighter and an ancient copy of a FIFA title with characters Dudu mostly doesn’t recognize except for Ronaldinho. The graphics are unbearable, and when he grows bored of playing it, they sit at the foot of Yeferson’s fold-out bed and watch old Hong Kong martial arts flicks, bootlegged in Paraguay and dubbed in Portuguese. They pick from a ziggurat of stacked VHS tapes.

If Dudu’s father was here (he isn’t), he would have interjected, pleading, “Stop this, Father”— father uttered as formally as a military rank—to spare his son these theatrics, with one necessary diplomatic concession: he would let Dudu sip a beer as long as he didn’t tell his mother.

It’s a shame your father didn’t join the family business, the Colonel says. Of all his sons, he continues, the Consul always had the best mind for business.

To read the rest of “Tubarão” you can purchase the Summer 2021 Issue Here.