Study Guide

Nailer in Ship Breaker

By Paolo Bacigalupi


Enter Our Intrepid Hero

Nailer is an adolescent ship breaker who works on light crew, crawling in the smallest places of old oil tankers to strip the ships for parts. Nailer's mom died an indeterminate amount of time ago, and his dad, a violent man who drinks and gets high all day, only grows more terrible. Nailer spends much of his time with his best friend Pima and Pima's mother Sadna, who function as his surrogate family.

An Angel and a Devil on Each Shoulder

Nailer and other characters think a lot about Nailer's motives for making the decisions he does throughout the novel. Guided by a moral compass he didn't think he had, Nailer consistently tries to do the right thing. This is totally different from his dad and a few other characters in the novel. Check out this explanation:

He'd been so desperate to get Sloth to care.

But he hadn't been able to find the lever. Or maybe the lever hadn't been there after all. Some people couldn't see any farther than themselves. People like Sloth.

People like his dad. (9.40-42)

But Nailer has this lever (read: the ability to shift out of self-preservation mode and help someone else), so when he and Pima are trying to decide whether to kill Nita and scavenge her ship, he empathizes with Nita's plight and thus saves her life. He thinks her life is worth something. And when Captain Candless asks Nailer why he's going to be searching for Nita, Nailer explains:

The captain saw a ship breaker, tattooed with work stamps and scarred with hard labor. A kid with his ribs showing through. That was all. A bit of beach trash.

Nailer stared at him. "Lucky Girl used to look at me the same way you're looking at me. And now she doesn't. That's why I'm going with you." (19.117-118)

So not only does Nailer do the right thing, he's motivated by loyalty to his friends. Both his loyalty and his morality are strengths, although sometimes he feels as if they make him weak. Life would be a lot easier if he could kill Nita, or give Nita up to his father, or leave with Tool, but Nailer can't bring himself to do it. So the loyalty that he feels and honor that he lives by lead him to rather dangerous situations: Blue Eyes's attack, a sinking ship, a final confrontation with his father.

Climb the Ladder

Nailer also wants out of his depressing life as a ship breaker. His life is utterly predictable: Work light crew, try for heavy crew, and probably die young. His future on Bright Sands Beach is limited in scope, and life will always be hard, so when the opportunity presents itself for him to throw his fortune in with Nita, he decides to take it. As he explains:

"I never really thought about how bad it is here. Not until yesterday. Not until her." He paused. "But you got to think, if she's that rich, there's other swanks out there. There's money out there. And it ain't here. Even Lucky Strike's a joke, in comparison to what she's got." (11.45)

Seeing Nita and what swanks really live like opens Nailer's eyes to a greater world. If pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps is possible, Nailer is seeing for the first where he might be able to land himself. And once he has a taste, he's not going to give it up.

Blood's Not Thicker Than Water

The relationship with his father causes Nailer to question what family actually means to him. Richard, as Nailer's dad, should take care of Nailer and provide him with food and safety and security and support, but instead Richard manipulates his familial tie with Nailer to serve his own purposes. It's Nailer who buys booze for his dad, Nailer who has to manage his father's highs and lows and violent tendencies. In other words, the one person who is actually in Nailer's blood family doesn't act like it.

But Pima and Sadna, and even Nita toward the end, give Nailer all that a family should. Sadna cares for Nailer when his own father doesn't, while Pima attacks Richard to save Nailer and Lucky Girl. And Nita (a.k.a. Lucky Girl) follows through on her promise to Nailer to get him out of ship breaking for good. Toward the end we're told:

The old-world wrecks still lay black on the sand like mangled bodies, still leaking oil and chemicals, still swarming with workers. But he wasn't one of them. And not Pima. And not Sadna, either. He wasn't able to save everybody, but he could at least save family. (25.38)

Nailer himself identifies Sadna and Pima as his family, throwing bloodlines to the wind. His biological dad might be dead, but the family that he has made for himself has survived. For Nailer, family is forged through enduring hardship and sharing experiences, it means security and loyalty and—gasp—even love. Which is why even though he has killed his father, Nailer still feels that his real family—Sadna and Pima—is alive at the end of the novel. Collective aw.

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