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)

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

This is a fascinating novel that begins with what purports to be an accidental death—of a college student named Bunny. But it has happened because five other students at Hampden, an obscure Vermont college, believe Bunny intends to reveal their involvement in the death of a Vermont farmer during a strange ritual. One of the five students is the narrator, Richard, who has fallen in with the other four shortly after the farmer’s death. The other students are Henry, the group’s manipulative leader; Frances, wealthy and seductive; and the twins, beautiful but aloof, Charles and Camille.

The novel is immediately fascinating because of how deeply the author understands these students and how well she communicates their bravado and their uncertainties. And yet, even as both their talk and their actions are convincing, the students themselves do not come alive on the page as separate individuals. Not even Richard, the narrator of their tale, a poor California youth who pretends to come from wealth. This may well be because all five are under the spell of eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, whose favorite saying is “beauty is terror,” and whose cultural frame of reference they have all absorbed.

The academic atmosphere, yes, comes alive, but not the characters. If these six youths seem more types than vividly individual students, it may also be because little dramatic happens after the opening pages. They are more interested in themselves than in each other. Early on, these students talk a lot, often about the Greek classics they study. And the author certainly knows those classics. But such discussions contribute more to the college atmosphere than to any dramatic developments.

Yet this rich atmosphere and the author’s fluid style sustain one’s interest.           What drives the novel early on is the fear among the four students that, angry he was not included in the ritual that resulted in the farmers death, a blackmailing Bunny will betray them. And half-way into this novel, after discussing what to do about Bunny, they quickly plan the “accident,” the murder that begins the novel. Narrator Richard is present, but more as a witness than a participant. Yet he is conscience-stricken and filled with guilt.

The students’ desperate reactions are interesting, but overall I am turned off by what is happening in this book—even as I read on to find out why this interesting author has written this novel. Where is she going with it? Certainly, identifying with these characters—with their defense of and justification of their actions—becomes difficult.

For example, the five students at first stand around and talk, often drinking or indulging in drugs, as they wait for various search parties to discover Bunny’s body and the apparent accidental circumstances. Then, after a brief campus-wide mourning, the five students attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut. All the while talking and drinking, talking about what they should do next. It is a well-drawn portrait of guilt, denial, and desperation, but nothing is really happening externally, certainly nothing dramatic.

In the final pages, the students try to come to terms with a situation in which their mutual guilt is compounded by a distrust of each other. Will one of them betray the others? Henry grows elusive. Charles gets drunk and becomes desperate. Francis panics. While narrator Richard follows them around—ineffectual, but indispensible for telling the story.

Two plot developments bring the story to a head—a melodramatic head. First, Professor Morrow, who has guided these privileged students into a world of dark conspiracies, makes a discovery that changes his view of them and the reader’s view of him. It is not a convincing shift, but seems to occur because it leaves these students without their cultural base, without the professor’s intellectual and emotional support they have long relied on.

And so they are on their own. And become desperate. One fearing death and finding a gun. One hiding from responsibility. One feeling helpless, and out of the loop. And then there is a melodramatic confrontation, followed by a death. Is there meant to be a moral here, that the victimizer becomes the victim?

The novel ends with a brief epilogue that describes the future of the various characters. But there are no revelations that further explain their actions during this melodrama of their student lives. Nor do those events have any impact on their future lives. It is simply a round-up chapter, like those that once concluded old-fashioned novels. But for me, it is a cop-out. It carries no significance. The significance of this novel is in their student experience—an experience that has turned this novel into a college novel like no other. It is as if the author has been guided into reverting to tradition. But the content of this novel is far from traditional.

And so, one asks where was the author trying to go with this novel? She began it while in college, and so one can easily conclude that she chose the college setting. That is, she decided to write from experience. But obviously, she was inspired to write something that was different. She wished to probe the psychology of students reacting to two deaths they are responsible for. There are no love stories here, nor tales of academic woes. No, this is about guilt and its repercussions.

In fact, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, after praising this novel for its controlled pace and its entertainment value, comes to a conclusion similar to mine: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such silly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering doe not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

My first caveat is that guilt and suffering do occur. But are simply not recognized. For what else drives the inexplicable, melodramatic climax?

Nor do I find evil present in this novel. Especially a Dionysian evil out of the Greek classics. That is too much weight for these studious but callow youths to carry. They simply do not know as much as they think they know. And are unprepared for their own fateful decisions. (November, 2018)