Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This 2000 work is a remarkable first novel that I have heard little about. It recreates the life of lobstermen on two rival islands off the coast of Maine. It is particularly notable for its casual, underwritten style. And is further notable for breaking a traditional rule of fiction—show, don’t tell. For the novel begins by describing the history of the two islands, Fort Niles and Courne Haven, then the history of their local lobster industry, including life on the lobster boats, and continues by introducing the rivalry among families of the two islands. This creates the novel’s initial tension, as the lobstermen on Fort Niles are more independent, while those on Courne Haven are more collaborative.

The novel first introduces Mary Thomas, the mother of the novel’s main character, Ruth Thomas. Mary was “adopted” by the wealthy Ellis family on Fort Niles to serve as an aide to one of their daughters. But after Mary marries and has Ruth, she leaves the island and never returns. Ruth, who does not know why her mother has vanished, is taken in by the neighboring Pommeroys. But it is then decided that this girl be exposed “to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather.” And so Ruth is sent away, against her will, to a private high school in Delaware with support from the Ellis family. Upon returning, however, as a determined and smart young woman, she insists that Fort Niles is her true home. And as she tells Mrs. Pommeroy, she will refuse to discuss with Mr. Lanford Ellis anything further about her future, because from now on, “I’m not going to do a single thing with my life that the Ellises want me to do. That’s my plan.”

She says this because she senses her life being overseen by the wealthy patriarch of Fort Niles, the elderly Mr. Ellis, who resides on the island only during the summer months. And she is not comfortable with her life being controlled by someone else. But what is she to do? She tries to ignore the possibility of becoming one of the stern men of the title, those uneducated youth of both islands who are able to earn a living only by the backbreaking work of dumping empty lobster traps into the ocean and then pulling them out weighted down with lobsters. (Stern in the title also suggests the attitude that these young island men need to survive their rough life, as well as deal, along with their captain, with the rival lobster boats from the other island.)

Nothing dramatic happens, however, among these lobster families to draw the reader into this book. What does so is the simple conversations that reveal their complex relationships. As a review in Mirabella says, “the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observations.”

So what does draw the reader on is the humanity of these islanders, and the relationships that develop even within their frequent rivalries. Plus, the author’s unobtrusive style. As a result, it is like dropping in on various colorful Maine characters, such as Ruth’s taciturn and rigid father Stan, called Greedy Number Two for the intensity of his lobster hauling; Angus Adams, her father’s crusty pal, called Greedy Number One; Simon Adams, called the Senator, who fears the ocean but wishes to establish a local museum of natural history; Rhonda Pommeroy, a widow and amateur beautician who takes in Ruth and is her best pal; and a persistent Cal Cooley, a toady to Mr. Ellis.

And so, it is the casual relationships among these interesting characters that draw the reader on. For example, it begins with the lobstermen of the two islands. The tension mounts when some drop their lobster traps into an area claimed by a lobsterman from the other island. After which the rivalries become personal.

Along with the wit of both the author and Ruth as they deal with these rivalries., our main curiosity is about whether this young woman will find her true vocation, and whether it will be on the island—or elsewhere, as Mr. Ellis seems to encourage. We have hopes for her, however, when she declares at one point, “Watch me! Watch me, world! Look out, baby!” She surely seems capable, if only she finds herself.

But the author introduces another level of reality, along with the mulishness of these Maine residents; and it is through her dialogue. For both men and women use scatological and irreverent exclamations that emphasize their homey, down-to-earth attitude, an attitude that reflects little value being given to education. Such as that which Ruth has received, with the aid of Mr. Ellis.

Moreover, the author also observes her characters, as I said, with a certain wit, and this helps to keep the reader at a distance. Which is not unlike how Ruth’s witty conversation often helps her to control her dealings with her flighty father, the supporting Mrs. Pomeroy, the persistent Cal Cooley, the imposing and elderly Lanford Ellis, and her rediscovered mother, as well as with the stubborn Senator Adams, the persistent and haughty pastor Toby Wishnell, and with his nephew Owney, in whom she sees the possibility of love—and another reason to remain on the island of Fort Niles.

Finally, in a strange Epilogue, Ruth achieves her dreams. I call it strange, because we do not follow her life as she achieves personal fulfillment. Presumably, the author feels she has already established the characteristics of Ruth that make this possible. And as a bonus, there is even a small surprise for the reader when Ruth agrees at last to meet the domineering Mr. Ellis to discuss not just the future, but their future.

Gilbert presents here the complexities of a simple life, and the fragility of depending on a single occupation. And fills these two islands with colorful characters whose narrow view of life limits them. Except, it does not limit Ruth, who is both smart and feisty. In fact, we see her as the hope of a new generation. And at the end of the novel, many islanders seem to realize this as well.

While the subject of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love never drew me to that well-known work, I thoroughly enjoyed The Signature of All Things, and this first novel now makes me still more interested in Gilbert’s fiction. (August, 2019)

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The Force, by Don Winslow

I have never read a novel quite like this 2017 work. A police novel so vivid, so cynical, so hard-boiled, so honest, and so brutal. The Force is the Manhattan North Special Task Force, part of the New York City Police Department, which means it covers Upper Manhattan including Harlem. The story centers on Sergeant Denny Malone, a decorated 18-year veteran, a tough Irishman who rules his domain like a king. A king with an iron fist.

“The people,” he says, “don’t know what it takes sometimes to keep them safe and it’s better that they don’t. They may think they want to know, they may say they want to know, but they don’t.”

This is the story of why they don’t.

We meet Denny on the first page as he is locked up by the Feds. The novel then becomes the story of how this honest, idealistic cop became a dirty cop. How he became dirty as a result of the race war, the turf war, and the drug war, between the blacks and the Dominicans of Harlem. How he kept the peace among those gangs by looking the other way at times, accepting money from them at times, and in one case convincing himself it made sense to steal millions of dollars in confiscated heroin. He justified it by calling it financial security for his three-man team in case their corruption was discovered; otherwise, it would disappear into the system, including into the pockets of people they reported to.

We also meet the other two members of his team, Phil Russo, who is Italian, and Bill Montague, who is big and is black. The three love each other, believe in each other, and back each other up. There is no racial or ethnic element here. They regard one another as true brothers.

The first half of this novel sets up their own relationship, an often difficult relationship with their superiors, and the dangers policemen confront when dealing with violent gangs who are dueling for control of the Force’s territory. This section is a powerful portrait of police work. It does not advance the story, but deepens the roles of both the policemen and the gangs. It especially shows how, step by step, arrogant policemen like Malone, Russo and Big Monty can become corrupt.

Once Denny has been arrested, we learn how the wheels of justice work. He is pressured to betray everyone he has dealt with, beginning with insignificant street people, but also extending to both gang leaders with whom he has kept the peace and to other policemen who have been corrupted by the system. He is especially pressured to betray his partners, Russo and Montague—a betrayal that at first he refuses to make. But more pressure is put on him, threatening his family. Making him realize that if he gives in to that will hate himself. And at this point, a moral level is introduced. Leaving the reader to see both the good and the evil in this trio of men. And perhaps in all policemen. Which realization brings home the toughness of their job. And which appears to be a major point of this novel.

Once this point is reached, however, Winslow’s ending for his novel becomes less convincing. For Denny is told that a tape exists of a cop shooting a black man in the back, and if this is released, there will be a citywide revolt. And since he knows the drug lord who has the tape, he is told that if he obtains it, he will allowed back on the Force. But if he fails, public riots will spread across the city. And then to other cities. But is it really believable that Denny’s bosses will give him the responsibility to resolve this far greater problem? For civic leaders to ask this arrogant cop to save their city from destruction? To become a hero again? This seems to me to be too big a role for one man, even for this policeman we have identified with.

And, yes, he does achieve a kind of peace. But it is at a high cost. In the novel’s terms, he is allowed to vent too much. And in his own terms, he unexpectedly turns on his superiors, and then risks all to get revenge on the last rival drug lord. Whereupon, despairing of his own future, with justice hovering behind him at every turn, the author gives him an easy out that is too much for me. It is just too neat. It provides an ending to his story, but it is more an ending achieved by the author than one achieved by Denny himself.

But despite such a major caveat, this is a powerful novel. What gives it its richness and its depth is its awareness of morality and of justice. Not simply whether the end justifies the means. It also asks: as a representative of justice, being a policeman, should I be doing what I am doing? Am I allowed to administer justice, such as shoot evil people? Such as take their bribes? Such as steal their goods? And this comes home to roost when Denny is asked to go against the policeman’s code and betray his fellow officers. This is when he finally touches the guilt that his conscience has allowed him to ignore—the appeal to betray his brothers in arms.

Another richness not to be ignored is the smart dialogue that establishes the relationships among the different levels of policemen, as well as their relationships with the different level of gangsters. These policemen also deal frankly with their own conflicting interests. They even convert an innocent Jewish rookie like Dave Levin to their illicit and immoral ways. But most of all, this trio of detectives commit to each other. Until they are tempted not to. By weighing their family’s freedom against that of their partners.

What makes this novel stand out is the tension among the policemen, and with their superiors, the street people, and the gangs. As Janet Maslin says in her New York Times review: “[Winslow] paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners, and loyalty to what they call the Job.” She also writes: “Cops, gangsters, drug dealers, high-end madams: They all turn out to be in business together.”

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more Don Winslow novels. From warlords to drug lords to society’s victims, he has captured elsewhere the underside of American society and earned many literary laurels. How have I missed reading his work until now? Was it because I associated the author’s name with that naval hero, back in the day, of comic strips, radio serials and, movies? (August, 2019)

Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

This 2014 novel is a fast read, and a highly polished and professional work of espionage. But it has little depth, No, for example, moral issues. Or psychological issues. And no real danger confronts its hero, Christian Ferrar, a Spanish exile who is a lawyer at a distinguished French law firm in Paris.

What this novel does achieve is an effective portrait of pre-war Europe. This is a strong point of most of Furst’s novels, and here he focuses on the Spanish Republic’s efforts to obtain anti-tank canon and artillery shells for use against the more powerful armaments employed by the forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ferrar’s two assignments are finding the canon and the specific shells that fit the Republic’s older weapons, and then arranging their delivery to the Republican forces in Spain. Which involves fast-moving but routine events, requiring Ferrar and his colleagues to ferret out the armaments from Eastern and Central Europe. Which also means he must deal with idealists and gangsters, and with arms traders and aristocrats, plus Max de Lyon, a mysterious arms merchant. Encounters with them also capture the 1930’s atmosphere, as they range from shady Paris nightclubs to the city’s plush apartments, as well as from a brothel in Istanbul to a dockyard in Poland,

But one of the novel’s problems is that there is little linkage among these events; they simply present hurdles to be overcome. That is, there is no building of suspense, no solving of one problem that leads to the next. Nor are there serious villains who offer threats to Ferrar’s two missions. The only problems are getting control of the armaments and making the delivery.

But, of course, such missions turn out to be not that simple. In one case, the team loses control of the cannon shipment and must take over a train in Poland to deliver it. In another, the shells are found in Russia, but Stalin’s policy refuses to sell the shells to his supposed allies, the leftists in Spain. And so, after the shells are found, they must be stolen, hidden on an ancient steamer, and then transported across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This sequence builds high drama as the novel draws to a close.

There are personal detours, of course, to flesh out Ferrar’s character and pique our interest. For example, he is a ladies man, and has at least three affairs during the course of his undercover work. He also has other responsibilities at his French law firm that fill out his life as a lawyer, but do not impact the search for armaments. At other intervals, Furst captures the atmosphere of European life, where people know that war is approaching but are not sure when and where. Still further atmosphere is created on a Paris-Berlin express train at night, on hectic car rides in Paris and Poland, and the climactic voyage through a storm and outrunning a patrol boat.

When in mood for a fast-paced thriller, another tale by Furst would be welcome. But despite the atmosphere, these works are not literature, and they lack the psychological probing and moral complexity that is a trademark of the best espionage novels. (July, 2019)