Man o’ War by Cory McCarthy is an achingly honest and frequently hilarious coming-of-age novel about an Arab American trans swimmer fighting to keep their head above water in a landlocked midwestern town.
River McIntyre has grown up down the street from Sea Planet, an infamous marine life theme park slowly going out of business in small-town Ohio. When a chance encounter with a happy, healthy queer person on the annual field trip lands River literally in the shark tank, they must admit the truth: they don’t know who they are—only what they’ve been told to be. This sets off a wrenching journey of self-discovery, from internalized homophobia and gender dysphoria, through layers of coming out, affirmation surgery, and true freakin’ love.
“River is the most emotionally engaging character I’ve read in a long time, and this novel is a deep and comprehensive exploration of the journey transgender people trek through the confining world they’re born into. Eye-opening, heartfelt, and real—with a massive payoff of true love.” —A.S. King, author of Dig, winner of the Michael L. Printz Award
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Cover/jacket design: Kristin Boyle
“That thing about diving into the shark tank? That was mostly an accident.”
The SeaPlanet hiring manager, a Mr. Sims, scrolled my application. I could tell when he’d gotten to the interesting part because his finger came to an abrupt halt on the tablet screen. “I heard about the kid in the shark tank, although I was at the Orlando park then. Was that last season?”
“Year and a half ago. There was a five hundred-day ban on my presence here. And that was up . . . yesterday. Which I took as a good sign.”
His face did not betray his thoughts. “A good sign to apply to work here?”
“I live three miles away. Where else should I work?”
Sims leaned back and his chair gave a tiny scream. He seemed tired like an old, white man, but I guessed his age was somewhere greater than undergrad and less than adult. He’d probably been interviewing high school kids every twenty minutes for the last three weeks straight. I could picture his fridge: Bud Light Lime and oxidized sriracha. “That’s not the answer we hope for at SeaPlanet,” he concluded.
“Oh, right. I want to become an oceanographer,” I amended with all the vocal enthusiasm of Siri. “The ocean speaks to me, and I must follow its call.”
“How many times have you been to the ocean?”
Low blow. Ohio was landlocked states deep. Unless you count Lake Erie, and if you’ve ever seen Lake Erie, you wouldn’t.
“The locals here are always so insulated.” Sims shook his head. A local at SeaPlanet of Ohio is better than a franchise, bitch. My counselor would be so proud that I’d held that one in. Something about coming out this past year had left me saltier than ever. Sims clicked a box on the screen, and it made a netch sound. “‘Aspires to biology or related career’ works just fine. I have a feeling your classmates have helped you game the system.”
“You don’t have to ask the same questions every single year.”
“As if I write the questions.” He was nearly smiling, which was weird. He couldn’t actually be considering hiring me. I’d told Taylor this was a complete waste of time—why would SeaPlanet hire someone who was behind the park’s “second-worst insurance nightmare”?—but she’d insisted we apply. And what the girlfriend wants, the girlfriend gets. “So, how does one accidentally fall into a shark tank?”
“Mostly an accident. I didn’t plan on diving in. And I know how suspicious it seems because I was wearing my suit, but I always did that back then.” And lesson learned in antibiotics and Diflucan. “I was going through something, but I’m done there.”
Which was true. Now instead of frequenting the gyno, I saw a licensed mental health counselor for my bimonthly dose of why me.
“The sharks didn’t bite. Not even a nibble,” I told him, remembering the burn of the frigid water loaded with salinization chemicals. Sims was right; I’d never been to the ocean, but I was pretty sure the sea didn’t scald like that. “Everyone wants to know if the sharks bit me, but you’ve seen the tank, those are low-level sharks. Under four feet. I was a big, crashing predator. Also, I found out afterward that sharks in captivity turn anorexic and pretty much always die of starvation within a year.” I could tell that this was new intel to Sims, but not a deal breaker. One needed flexible morals to work here.
“Everyone overreacted, if you ask me.”
Sims stared like I’d been talking for a long time. I wrapped it up. “It’s not like SeaPlanet took out a permanent restraining order. I wrote an apology to the owner of the park, and he wrote me back.” I pointed to the tablet. “I attached the pdf in references.”
“Would you do it again?”
He was asking if I had plans to drop myself into another tank, but it felt like he was asking if I’d come out again. Hold my breath through the shark-week-turned-entire-season, answering every intrusive question from family, friends, and foes like a robot who could only say lesbian.
He looked at his tablet and returned to the mandatory questions, his own programming kicking in. “If you were babysitting, and there was a knock on the door and the baby started crying and you were cooking something on the stove, what would you do?”
“Question my life choices.”
“You have to answer if you want me to consider your application. Sarcastic charisma isn’t on this checklist, River.”
“River?” I repeated.
“Rain?” His finger poised to scroll all the way back up my application to my name but his expression begged for me to just tell him. Finally he found it on the screen. “Knew it was a water name. So I was pretty close.” He squinted at the tablet. “Your answer?”
“I’d check on the baby, turn off the stove, and answer the door.” Nailed it. Taylor had drilled me on this ridiculous question at lunch. Apparently how swiftly you answered mattered a lot more than what you said. They hired quick thinkers and multitaskers at SeaPlanet; like I said, morality was optional.