This Whale Has Something to Say

Remember the orca revolt? Late last spring, media outlets began reporting that a group of orca whales were ramming seacraft near the Strait of Gibraltar. Although most encounters ended without incident, a number of boats were damaged. Three sank from the attacks. The phenomenon went viral, especially after more than one observer suggested that the attacks appeared to be coordinated. “Experts suspect,” a reporter for the website Live Science wrote, that a female orca, which researchers had dubbed “White Gladis,” “suffered a ‘critical moment of agony’—a collision with a boat or entrapment during illegal fishing—that flipped a behavioral switch.” Possibly, she was pregnant. In the aftermath of such a trauma, it was conjectured, she may have initiated an orcan resistance, vengeance as open-ocean passion play.

I’d like to imagine White Gladis as a spiritual godmother of Lolita, the captive orca who plays an outsize role (no pun intended) in Jennine Capó Crucet’s second novel, Say Hello to My Little Friend. Crucet is also the author of a story collection and a book of essays, My Time Among the Whites: Notes From an Unfinished Education, that explores her experience as the first-generation child of Cuban refugees and the complex, and often contradictory, challenges of immigration and American identity. A related set of concerns motivates Say Hello to My Little Friend, although here Crucet applies a broader filter to the narrative, creating something of a chorus in which point of view shifts from character to character: a collective consciousness, if you will. And central among those voices is Lolita, who for many decades has been confined to a small tank not much larger than her body at the Miami Seaquarium. There, she essentially dreams—I know no other way to describe it—the story we are being told in this novel.

“And Lolita is here now too: anyone, anyone?” the narrator wonders. “She’s become just as much a part of this city and this narrative as anyone born here, hasn’t she? She’s been trapped in Miami over fifty years, knows all too well its sunrises and sunsets and storms and dirty seawater. At what point would you say her perspective counts as a local one?”

The passage illustrates Crucet’s method in the novel, which is written in a close third person that swoops in to encompass different, overlapping perspectives, upending our expectations about voice and storytelling in an exhilarating way. In part, her method works because of the proximity of the events here, which take place in 2017 and involve a number of recognizable realities—climate change, for one, and the toxicity of the Trump presidency. Lolita, for her part, also existed. Taken in 1970 off the coast of Washington State, she was the second-oldest orca in captivity at the time of her death, in 2023. Crucet expands her story, filling out the details of the whale’s biography to give Lolita cognition, a consciousness that becomes the defining intelligence of the book.

This is not to say that Say Hello to My Little Friend is Lolita’s story—not entirely. Equally essential is a second protagonist, 20-year-old Ismael (Izzy) Reyes, who can feel (if not quite verbalize) the orca’s thoughts in his own head, as he struggles to find his place in the world. As the novel opens, Izzy, who impersonates the rapper Pitbull for a living, has just received a cease-and-desist order in regard to his act. He decides as a result to pursue what he believes to be his true destiny: “to embrace his Cuban birth and his huge balls; he would remake himself into Tony Montana for the new millennium, Miami’s modern-day Scarface.” He draws up a checklist (“Get grad suit dry-cleaned,” “Get hooked up with shady dudes who hire us for a job of some sort”) and goes in search of his Manolo, the sidekick Montana ultimately murders near the end of the 1983 Brian De Palma film.

If this sounds over-the-top, it is, and gloriously so. Yet to read Say Hello to My Little Friend merely through such a lens is to overlook the deeper movements of the book. Yes, Izzy is adrift, uncertain of who he is or what he wants, other than an amorphous desire for notoriety. His sense of self is defined by external manifestations that are themselves derivative. De Palma’s Scarface, after all, is “a remake of a 1932 film of the same name, and that film is an adaptation of a 1929 novel, also titled Scarface—a book that bears little resemblance to any iteration of the finished film.” Not only that, but much of the De Palma film wasn’t shot in Miami; after pushback from the city commissioner and the Cuban community, the studio finished principal photography in Los Angeles. Izzy himself can’t even watch it; when he tries to do so, in the company of his new sidekick, the two eventually switch from the movie to a Miami Marlins game. He is a lost boy, in other words, an idea Crucet makes explicit in the character’s history: As a child, he watched his mother—a devoted comunista, so what were they even doing on the raft?—drown in open ocean during their exodus from Cuba, although the circumstance of it, his memory of what happened, remains unclear.

Now Izzy is a high-school graduate living in his Tía Tere’s tricked-out garage. The city around him is returning to the water, which not only falls from the sky but also seeps up through the pavement: “Sunny day flooding,” this is called. Tony Montana? Izzy’s not even Pitbull. In his attempts to move through the world as these two figures do, he only reveals his own inauthenticity. And yet, with no real sense of self, what other choice does he have? This is a key move of the novel, to reveal the thinness of the fantasies by which Izzy seeks to frame himself, to show his lack of insight, his inability to know himself, as less a character detail than a character flaw.

Contrast that with Lolita, who always knows precisely who and where she is. “She knows she’s in Miami, Florida,” the narrator declares, “but that she’s not from here, that such a thing is impossible. She knows roughly the location of her still-living family members—and so, of her mother—though this is less known than felt, which is the case for much of what you’d call knowing.” That uneven parallel, the orca’s understanding of where her mother can be found, is no coincidence. Rather, it opens Say Hello to My Little Friend to what is, perhaps, its most audacious point of connection, as Lolita begins to communicate with Izzy via a kind of telepathic transference, neither thought nor conversation, exactly—more like touch.

Izzy knows that something unusual is happening, but he cannot understand it. “What if she’s a metaphor?” he wonders about the whale during a visit to the Seaquarium, although the answer we receive is from Lolita, or the more expansive narrative voice she represents. “Of course she’s a metaphor. Of course she is,” this voice explains, before segueing into an extended single-sentence passage that references both the mammal’s expatriate status (“She is el exilio; she is Cuba under the embargo; she is a generation of Cubans born in the United States”) and that other, famous magnum opus about a whale and a human (“She is Ishmael and she is Melville’s clear authorial voice.”)

For Crucet, this is an essential turning point, a shift from representational to metaphoric thinking, or—to frame it in the terms of the novel—from human to cetacean consciousness. “So much of the human brain is devoted to language,” she notes, channeling the orca. “How limiting, how pathetic even, to have evolved toward speaking rather than sensing. An evolutionary wrong turn: the limits of talking, the circling and circling in a tank too small—in a tank at all.”

What’s that about the whale as metaphor?

And yet, in a thrilling paradox, this allows Crucet to crack the novel open, moving from Lolita and Izzy through a nuanced weave of points of view, from the insignificant (a server who takes over the book for a page or so as she waits on Izzy and the woman he hopes will become the Michelle Pfeiffer to his Al Pacino) to the encompassing (the Cuban diaspora of South Florida). “She is Ahab and she is Tony,” the narrator says, describing not just Lolita but also the psychic terrain of Say Hello to My Little Friend; “she is Miami—beautiful, improbable, doomed; she is, like every single one of you, an accident of history.”

One tragedy is that Izzy is too unconscious to understand this. Another is that Lolita is not. She recognizes the full scope of her situation, the unnatural state of living as a captive in a small concrete tank, while her mind, her senses, remain aware of everything. Such a contradiction is central to the novel’s larger conflict, which is the tension between artifice and authenticity. That’s true in regard to not only Izzy, but also the entire human landscape of the narrative. Consider Miami in all its artificiality, preserving itself by raising existing roads and buildings even as Biscayne Bay continues to rise. Consider Izzy, captivated by a rapper his aunt refers to as “a hack and a clown,” and then by a third-generation iteration of a character in a movie he cannot watch.

The miracle is not that Say Hello to My Little Friend works, so much as that it enlarges our sense of the possible, recalling the vanity of human aspiration not through a lens of ridicule but through one of empathy. The chorus of voices, the point-of-view shifts—all of it allows Crucet to imagine her way to a larger authenticity, where the absurd nature of Izzy’s fantasies reflects a more universal disconnection, afflicting every character and setting in the book. The world is dying, the novel wants us to realize; can’t we see that? Or the human world, at any rate. I’m reminded of Robinson Jeffers’s concept of inhumanism: “a shifting of emphasis from man to not man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Crucet, I want to say, is after something similar. Not a world without humans, necessarily, but one where there is trans-species integration, where our dreams, like Lolita’s, collectivize.

“And so it is here,” the narrator observes of the orca, “that she returns in her worst waking moments, which is every moment she is not eating or performing or calling for her mother or now, for Izzy. She imagines herself as his mother. She senses—in the tank’s filtered and too-warm saltwater that was once in the very nearby sea—his mother’s bones, her cells, the atoms of her memories and thoughts. She absorbs each particle, and with each comes the promise and the threat: she’ll tell him exactly what he wants to know.”

I’m not naive enough to believe that a work of fiction can change the way we live. Yet throughout these pages, Crucet insists that we rethink our models for engagement, with one another and with the world at large. Say Hello to My Little Friend is a social novel, a climate-change novel. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a city novel, a sprawling satire. And it is a commentary on identity and longing in a 21st-century America obsessed with its own ephemera, in which the consciousness of a single orca might bring us closest to a collective, and sustaining, reality.

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