Water Dogs by Lewis Robinson is set in my part of coastal Maine. If Meadow Island were real, it might be in Harpswell. Visitors drive up from Portland and down from Brunswick, crossing a bridge to the island. The Meadow Island kids, called “water dogs,” go to Brunswick High.
Lewis Robinson lives in Portland and teaches writing at USM. He’s a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was John Irving’s assistant for two years. You can see the touch of the master in his work, but his voice is original. Robinson wrote a fabulous collection of short stories, Officer Friendly, which I reviewed two years ago. I had been eagerly awaiting his debut novel in January. I was not disappointed.
Robinson writes exquisitely about Maine and its inhabitants. This is not “Vacationland” (as it says on the license plate) but a cold, wintry place of bleak beauty. So many novels set in Maine are about summer people “from away.” Robinson’s character are locals. These are “real men” who shoot birdhouses for target practice while drinking heavily. They puke, defecate and swear, but they also try to do the best by their loved ones, often failing miserably. You might get exasperated with these characters, but you can’t help loving them.
When we first meet the twenty-something protagonist, Bennie is woken by baby raccoons nesting in the walls of his home. He frees them by hacking a hole in the wall and then catches the mother in a have-a-heart trap. The hole in the wall remains un-repaired, but the raccoons are released into a ravine. Bennie lives with his taciturn brother in a dilapidated seaside mansion called “the Manse.” The main décor would be rows of empty beer bottles. After losing their father as teenagers, these young men are drifting.
The high point of the week is playing paintball, a war game where teams fire paint pellets from their guns in the woods. The Littlefield bothers’ arch rivals are the urchin fishermen. Playing in a snow storm, Bennie falls into a quarry and one of the urchin fishermen goes missing. Bennie’s brother becomes a suspect. Now playing detective, Bennie hobbles on crutches in search of the lost player.
Unfortunately, the central plot sometimes limps as much as Bennie. We don’t get to know anything about the missing man until the final chapters, and we never learn enough to care. It’s an odd omission because the other characters are so well developed. I think the story would have worked better if the missing person had been Bennie’s twin sister, visiting from NYC.
It doesn’t matter. The writing is so good and the characters so real, that you won’t mind that the mystery plot doesn’t totally work. What do work are the relationships. Bennie starts out insecure and lost, but in looking for the missing man, he instead finds himself. Perhaps that was really what he was searching for all along. To uncover Bennie, Robinson digs deep into family relationships with so much emotional honesty that you’ll cry with the guys into a pint of Harpoon Ale.
Robinson can be wickedly funny, skewering my hometown:
The Maine he knew was getting overhauled, burdened by interlopers and nostalgia-addled white-collar suburbs in the middle of the woods – Cumberland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Brunswick, old towns with brand-new health stores and woodstove dealerships. Many of the cars he passed had vanity license plates – EX-BRIT, KAYAKR, SOCERDAD, DRMOM….
Robinson notes crass ugliness, but he also finds poetic beauty in the ordinary:
The ice crystals on the window beside Bennie were curved white ferns, and through them he caught glimpses of the tundra; everything in the world was dead or sleeping.
What I loved best of all was the winter island setting:
There were thin wisps of sea smoke on the water and a layer of mist just above the dark blue expanse, but otherwise the view was as sharp as it usually was in winter – no islands on the horizon.
Snow and the sea surround the characters and create the mood, enhancing the tension. The best chapter was a story unto itself in which Bennie’s father, “Coach,” dives naked into the frigid ocean, trying to save their water-logged retriever.
The flashbacks are actually better than the main story, but that works in the narrative. Bennie has to deal with his past before he can step into his future and walk again.
There was a real sense of coming home, reading Robinson’s words. Not only does he inhabit my world, he shares my vision to a certain extent.
My novel S.A.D. seems to be the next chapter in these characters’ lives, once they’ve reached middle age and sent their own kids to Brunswick High. My coastal Maine is not so bleak and isolated, but it’s volatile. Brunswick is more than a gentrified college town, it’s a naval town of diverse characters with inter-connected lives. Robinson’s young men live on an island all to themselves. I’d like to invite them in from the cold.
Blog watch: As you can see, I’ve been reading more than ever on these cold days. I noticed that some of you bloggers are doing so as well. Alyson@New England Living disconnected for a week to read books. Rose@Prairie Rose’s Garden has abandoned her frozen garden to read and to review three novels. A Cuban in London reviewed a French novel set in Tel-Aviv. For more book reviews, visit Barrie Summy's Book Review Club today. Who says bloggers aren’t readers?
Reminder: my talk on blogging and using the internet to market art is on Monday Feb 9th. Details at the bottom of last week’s post.