Mom was due before the end of July. By the time August first rolled around, she’d been in the hospital for a week—and she was “a little emotional.” She kept saying that she felt like a whale, and she didn’t see the humor in Dad’s insistence that, with her popped-out belly button, it looked like a giant breast was attacking her. One afternoon, Dad excused himself, supposedly to go call family. When he returned, he had a cardboard peg leg, an eye patch, a bandana, and a blue teddy bear taped to his shoulder. He introduced himself as Captain Ahab—who’s “seeking the white whale.”
This story gives some insight into Dad’s sense of humor, which helps explain where Ishmael developed the sarcastic tone that he uses throughout the novel. But Dad does seem to be making these jokes in attempts to get his wife to feel better, showing that language can, in some cases (though perhaps not in this one), help improve people’s outlook. Dressing up as Captain Ahab is a nod to Herman Melville’s whaling novel Moby-Dick, and it introduces the novel as a symbol for Ishmael’s relationship to his name.
Mom had just taken a drink of water, but she hadn’t swallowed yet. Shocked at Dad’s appearance, she laughed, spit the water out, and started having contractions. Dad hurt himself trying to get to her and help her, and their firstborn son was born soon after. Then they discussed names—and Dad leaned down to his son as though he were listening. Dad said the baby was saying, “Call me Ishmael.” Mom and Dad howled hysterically, while baby Ishmael “shrieked, like a chainsaw.” Perhaps he knew what Dad did to him.
“Call me Ishmael” is the first line of Moby-Dick, which makes it clear that Ishmael was in fact named after Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael (Ishmael is also a biblical name; it’s not just connected to this novel). For Ishmael, it’s ominous that his infant self shrieked “like a chainsaw,” as it suggests that even then, he knew Ishmael would be a cursed name. But still, exactly why the name is a curse is unclear.