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Books: Deep Currents

4 minute read
Paul Gray


by John Casey

Knopf; 375 pages; $18.95

Stories about seafaring inevitably carry a ballast of symbolism. Shimmering significance goes with the territory: people casting off in the little world of a ship, adrift on a journey at the mercies of the elements and fate. In his second novel — twelve years after his critically praised An American Romance — John Casey makes it plain on the opening page that some large issues are going to be entertained. He introduces his hero, Dick Pierce, in a skiff, floating among the creeks and inlets of coastal Rhode Island. In paragraph two, Pierce ponders the marsh grass around him and has an insight: “Only the spartinas thrived in the salt flood, shut themselves against the salt but drank the water. Smart grass. If he ever got his big boat built he might just call her Spartina, though he ought to call her after his wife.”

These sentences foreshadow nearly everything to come in Spartina, although just how cleverly Casey tips his hand does not become clear until much later. Pierce’s family once mattered in this region of Rhode Island, but not any longer. A succession of bad breaks has “squeezed him up Pierce Creek to an acre of scrub,” where he lives in a ramshackle house with his wife May and two teenage sons and scrabbles a living as a fisherman. “He’d had a plan: by age 40 he would be master of a ship. Here he was at age 40-plus in an 18-foot skiff.”

Pierce’s bitterness over his lot in life helps make him its prisoner. His quick temper has got him fired from jobs that might have enabled him to buy his boat and independence. Banks will not lend him money. He has no telephone at home because he ripped it out of the wall during a fit of anger. He poaches clams at a neighboring bird sanctuary, more out of orneriness than hope of profit. And, to complicate his existence still further, he has fallen into a love affair with Elsie Buttrick, the local game and fish warden.

It would seem difficult to root for the success of such an unpleasant character, but Casey artfully provides good reasons for doing so. Pierce’s “swamp Yankee” pride is based on a fierce, if sometimes obnoxious, integrity. He does not ask for anything except the chance to make a decent living at what he knows best. The world needs seafood, and Pierce has learned through long experience how to find and catch it. He is, in fact, an archetypal figure in American literature, the little guy at odds with big institutions, battling the triumph of newfangled shoddiness over old traditions. In addition, he possesses enough self-awareness to recognize and regret his bursts of bad behavior.

Can Pierce raise the $10,000 or so required to finish his boat and get it launched before the whole project sinks under debt and futility? How will he manage his passionate connection with Elsie while maintaining his marriage and giving no pain to his patient, long-suffering wife? Answers eventually arrive, but not before some spirited narrative interludes: vivid scenes of hunting and “sticking” swordfish on the high seas, a sexual encounter that turns into an extended bout of mud wrestling, a hair-raising attempt to outsail a major hurricane.

Beneath this busy, engrossing surface, though, Casey traces deep moral currents. Pierce must try to free his soul from the hoard of resentments it has accumulated. If the spartina grass can filter out the salt and be nourished by the water, perhaps Pierce can accept what he has been given and forget about what he has lost. This matter remains in doubt almost to the end of the book. The resolution is worth waiting for, and so are the pleasures along the way. Here is old-fashioned, full-bodied fiction with a vengeance: remarkable characters meet and clash on fields of social class, money and sex. They do not make novels like this very much anymore; John Casey deserves gratitude for being stubborn and talented enough to do so and succeed.

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