SOME THOUGHTS ON THE ORIGIN AND MEANING
This story is a parable. It's a direct result of my fascination with the parable form, which I first encountered growing up Mennonite in B.C.'s Fraser Valley. The Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect, were at that time still very insular, cultivating an intensely "us-them" mentality. The differentiation was easy: we (the Mennonites) were going to heaven, while they (everyone else) were all going to hell.
I don't know whether this was a cause or an effect, but I soon became utterly fascinated with the idea of "outsiders". Obviously, the reasons why people incline to become outsiders vary widely - a penchant for individual thought, self-sufficiency, shyness, loneliness, resentment or anger, a sense of being different, either better or worse than others, a traumatic experience or long illness - and there are undoubtedly hundreds more. But once a person has drifted to the perimeter of society, there's a certain similarity and inevitability to what happens next. I discovered this myself living for a time in a little shack in the wilds of northern Alaska. They call it "becoming bushed", and what it means is that once the thousands of invisible constraints with which society maintains order among its members (ie. notions of good taste and civilized behaviour, moral rules, shame, taboos, etc.) are removed, the unfettered brain starts to race - often spinning right out of control. The history of the settling of the Canadian west, for example, is full of stories of single men who simply couldn't handle the loneliness and silence of living on their own on the open prairie or in the coastal forests. Many became strange. Why does that happen? Why can't you rely on your brain to protect you when there are no other people around? Is that why many people are so instinctively afraid of being alone for any significant length of time? Or why so many people are uncomfortable with long periods of silence?
And yet it's that very silence, the urge to contemplation, that forms the underpinnings for many of the great works our artists and thinkers have produced. These people - also often outsiders - in effect "risk themselves" in silence to produce contemplative works that ordinary people don't have the time or energy or interest (or courage?) to produce. Sometimes what they produce is clearly profound and inspired, but it may just as often be incomprehensible, seemingly ridiculous or even insane. And yet everyone agrees that these works are one of mankind's primary sources of wisdom.
It startled me, holed up in that shack in Alaska, how very little it takes to cross that barrier from ordinary everyday normality into madness (or sainthood, or criminal behaviour). For our own sense of security we like to believe there's a world of difference between ourselves and society's outsiders - but when one gets to know some of them a little better, one soon sees how thin the difference can be. I once became acquainted with a former executive of MacMillan Bloedel who'd committed murder, and he was the most genuinely surprised of anyone that he'd been capable of such an act. I remembered then an image from my childhood: we used to watch movies in school at lunch, using a 16mm projector, and if the film was wrapped too loosely around the sound drum, the result – the loss of sync between people’s voices and their lip movements -- was always startling. One's entire sense of the movie's reality went awry. The simple fact that you couldn't match up people's lip movements with the words they were saying broke down the cinematic universe completely. Just a frame or two out of sync, and reality as we knew it was destroyed, or at least severely distorted. That's how I came to see the difference between normality and madness.
A couple of other loosely-associated images, and then I'll try to pull them all into a coherent whole. I also saw a science-fiction thriller as a kid - a real Grade-B clunker - but it had one fascinating element that I never forgot. A man was shot into outer space, but when he returned he passed through the time-warp incorrectly, ending up back on earth precisely one minute ahead of earth time. This meant that anything that happened to him from then on was always exactly one minute ahead of normal earth time or occurrences. He began to do things like leap wildly out of the path of a car that didn't show up for another minute. He answered questions nobody had yet asked - but did, exactly one minute later. You get the idea. The resulting dislocation was totally catastrophic for him - and all because of only a miniscule misalignment of time.
Another image: we say, when someone is living a wild, risky life, that he is "burning the candle at both ends" - ie. getting older faster than normal, wearing himself out, becoming more and more out of sync with his community. (I ended up using this image almost literally in THE LATE MAN, in that he slowly becomes more and more out of sync with the other fishermen by 15 minutes per day, and ages much more quickly too.)
So back to the parable: I envisioned the storm that begins THE LATE MAN as the metaphoric "cause" for the Late Man's alienated condition when we first meet him. Whatever the reason, it's causing him to drift farther and farther out of touch with the rest of his community. (You can see that by telltale details, such as the way he looks at a glass of water.) As one drifts away like that, one's life may begin to spin faster and faster "out of orbit". As one drifts out of orbit, one begins to think more for oneself, to do things for one's own reasons rather than for society’s reasons. It doesn't take long before the things an outsider does begin to look pretty weird to the rest of the community. They MAY be weird - they often are - but they may not be, too. Many of mankind's greatest ideas or inventions have been achieved when one person stopped seeing things the way everyone else did – like Albert Einstein. And that possibility - the intuitive fascination with that possibility - is what invariably attracts a few followers/novices/disciples (in this case the young fisherman) to some outsiders.
The image of fishing in this parable might be seen both as the work of daily life as well as (more metaphorically) the daily act of accumulating wisdom, harvesting the mind of the sea. Many who use their brains unthinkingly in everyday work don't realize how truly magnificent but also thoroughly dangerous the brain can be. It can make ongoing sense of life, or it can drive you crazy. Try imagining infinity for even just a few minutes. Or try imagining what it might be like NOT to be human. Or read the diaries of the famous dancer Nijinsky, whose racing mind drove him deeper and deeper into madness, or the diary of Donald Crowhurst, who spent 8 months drifting on the open Atlantic in a leaky trimaran, reading Einsteins' Theory of Relativity until he lost his marbles and jumped overboard.
"A violated universe will not be satisfied with the simple deflection of an inquisitive mind". It sometimes seems to me that the universe doesn't WANT to be examined that closely, and, like a mythic monster guarding a great treasure, tries to destroy anyone who tries to understand it. Fishermen traditionally spent a lot of time alone on the open sea, which is why I chose fishing as my main metaphor. In this sense an outsider/fisherman, trolling through increasingly uncharted territories of the mind, soon sees and encounters a lot more danger than his former co-workers. They're just catching fish. He's beginning to catch stranger and stranger creatures. The monsters that the brain can produce when it begins to spin out of control can be nightmarish. They also make him grow older faster, etc.
So one might say that the Late Man, drifting farther and farther from his community, is catching more and more noncommercial, deepwater fish - and he's increasingly alone with that catch: his discoveries, fears, obsessions. It's also increasingly difficult for him to know whether what he's catching is wonderful or awful. By now, nobody would understand him anyway. So he starts to throw back whatever he catches. (At its final end, of course, this becomes another version of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS [or Francis Coppola's movie APOCALYPSE NOW] with Kurtz/Brando moaning "the horror, the horror".)
Rather than camouflaging everything in metaphor, however, I decided to make some of the stuff (like the time-frame element) actual and real, in sci-fi fashion, so that all the other fishermen actually see the Late Man aging faster, which both puzzles them and makes the separation greater. This also explains why it takes them so long to get to him when he finally dies - they've got to cross all that intervening time.
Anyway, those are some of the elements I was kicking around when I wrote THE LATE MAN. Feel free to question or query anything that doesn't make sense. Since it's a parable, I don't claim to own the only interpretation of it. Parables are primarily intended to provoke thought, to dramatize ideas. That's their strength and also their weakness. You often can't empathize with a parable's characters; they're stick-figures, people who stand for ideas. But they can provoke a lot of discussion, which is my primary purpose.