By John Nelander
Special to the Daily News
Jeff Nichols is a writer who tells bluntly honest stories about himself and his troubled past as a young man struggling with learning disabilities and an over-the-top enthusiasm for drugs and alcohol.
He continues in that vein with his new book, Caught. Caught is about Nichols’ involvement with the fishing industry — in particular, the striped-bass business in Montauk, N.Y. It would seem to be an ocean away from his first book, Train Wreck: My Life as an Idoit (sic), which was made into a Hollywood movie.
Nichols didn’t move to the West Coast, though. Instead, he focused on his work as a commercial fisherman on Long Island, where he operates Second Choice Charters with the rather wry slogan: “If the top guys can’t take you, I will!”
The style of the books is similar. A former stand-up comic, Nichols never passes up a chance to take a shot at himself, and the result is an entertaining narrative that’s irreverent and funny.
His parents moved to Palm Beach in the 1980s, and Nichols spent time in South Florida as a youth before going away to school. Along the way, it was determined that he was suffering from “severe learning disabilities” that included dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and what he calls “a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome.”
After a few career detours, he decided to write a sort of autobiography that became Train Wreck. It was self-published. His friends sneered.
“I told my friend I was writing a book about learning disabilities,” Nichols recalled in a phone interview from New York. “He goes, ‘Jeff, no one cares about a book about learning disabilities.’ I go, ‘That’s not true. Millions of people are afflicted with learning disabilities.’
“He says, ‘So what? Millions of people are afflicted with gingivitis, but they don’t want to read a book about it.’ ”
Book became movie
But Hollywood liked the book, and Train Wreck went into production as a $6 million movie called American Loser.
“To get paid for writing was validating,” he said. “I had a few articles published, but to get this big advance from Lionsgate was a huge shot in the arm. It kept the wolves away for a while.
“And then the book got picked up by Simon & Schuster. They shot the movie in New York City, and I brought my mom to the set. They closed off Park Avenue. It wasn’t a huge movie, but it was a Hollywood production with a trailer. It was great.
“Unfortunately, the movie stunk, which is too bad. And you know what? The book kind of stunk, too. The problem with the book is that it didn’t have a good, strong narrative. There’s some wonderful stuff in there, but as a body of work, it was too episodic.
“Caught is better because you can pick up the storyline, especially if you’re into fishing. People are reading it. And then they get online and recommend it.”
Which brings up the striped-bass issue. “I just accidentally fell in with these guys who happened to be into striped bass,” Nichols said. “So I followed them around and watched what they were doing. They would show up with these huge striped bass, which they call ‘slobs.’
“And then I got my captain’s license, and I got customers to come out. Not that I was so great, but I had these GPS numbers, these coordinates where you can catch these big fish.”
The iconic East Coast fish was endangered in the early 1980s because of over-fishing and restaurants catering to diners’ taste for the meat. The fish recovered with regulation, but now they’re in trouble again.
In the book, he attributes the striped-bass decline to “a great many environmental and climatic factors slowly but steadily chipping away at the fish over many years.”
Caught actually chronicles Nichols’ transition from a fisherman who was in it for the kicks — and cash — to an enthusiastic environmentalist who preaches the benefits of ocean and fish conservation. One of the turning points came when he was arrested in 2005 for catching and keeping more than the legal limit.
He wrote: “I was the smallest cog in what was apparently a large black-market fishing industry.” It took two years for the case to be resolved.
He said the biggest fish — striped bass can run to 75 pounds and more — are essential to keep producing the little fish. It’s a delicate balance that can easily be tipped out of whack.
Mom weighs in
“He’s very conscious about the environmental impact on fishing,” said his mother, Cynthia Gibbons of Palm Beach. “He didn’t know what he was doing was wrong until he got arrested. But it was just part of the underbelly of the life out there.
“But now he’s so much on the other side — saving the fish and protecting the fish.”
Gibbons said she and Nichols’ father, who lives in New York, were surprised by some of the stories in their son’s first book. “We didn’t know a lot of it,” she said. “But he has left that behind, and he’s coping so beautifully.”
How do all these fish stories relate to his original book on his disabilities? For one thing, he thinks attention deficit disorder may have helped make him a better fisherman.
“If you’re too linear, you might miss out on other opportunities,” he said. “So in some ways, ADD actually helped. I still have immense organizational problems, and that’s not good. If you have a boat, you want everything to be ship-shape.
“But as far as creativity and finding out where the fish are biting, if I was too focused, I might not ever leave the dock. If I was taking Ritalin, I’d sit there and file my hooks and never go out.”