Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Water Dogs by Lewis Robinson

Harpswell Sound by Sarah Laurence (watercolor)

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.


tina said...

Lewis Robinson captured the Maine I remember so well from my youth. I bet there were even a few deer hunts thrown in too, along with all the beer drinking. Sure takes me back. I liked your review very much.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, the Littlefield kids competed in biathlons (ie cross-country skiing and shooting.) I get the sense that the author likes animals too much to write about hunting. Robinson grew up in Maine so he gets it.

TBM said...

Wonderful review, Sarah. And your watercolour is stunning as are the snowflake photos. I always look forward to your Wednesday posts.

Charlotte said...

What a beautiful blog and a wonderful review. When I came across "Officer Friendly" at, my favorite book-swapping site, I was struck by the fact that every review was 5-stars. I don't believe I've ever seen so many people agree on a book or author. I definitely will want to get Water Dogs as well.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...


I just love coming here. I thoroughly enjoyed your review, the art, the photos. I feel the joy in your profession and you inspire me to focus in on mine as well. I am so glad I found your blog.

Mama Shujaa.

Tessa said...

Hear hear, Mama Shujaa! I do agree. Sarah, your paintings and photographs, reviews and views are always an absolute delight and are indeed something I look forward to every week.

I've long been fascinated by Maine because it seems to be a place that inspires many authors and artists of note. You amongst them. I must try and get hold of your novel now.

Barrie said...

Sarah, thank you for this insightful review. Give me a sec and your link will be added to The Book Review Club. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

JaPRA, thank you! Frost is the best artist of all. I enjoy catching up on my blog Wednesdays too. I shall be over soon. Today is orthodontist day for both kids.

Charlotte, welcome to my blog! A book swap sounds a prudent idea in these times. Robinson’s books are worth buying if you can because you’ll want to revisit them.

Mama Shujaa, that is so sweet of you to say. I do love my work and sharing it with this fabulous community. I’m so happy to have discovered your blog too. Mutual inspiration is a beautiful thing.

Tessa, thank you! I always enjoy my visits to your art blog too. Thanks so much for your interest in my novel S.A.D., but you’ll have to wait to read it. My agent will be looking for a publisher soon. The publishing world practically shut down when the stock market crashed. The industry has been restructured. Even in normal times, it can take a while. I’ve explained the slow process of how a manuscript becomes a published book in: Shaping A Novel (S.A.D.). Knowing that I have readers waiting is really encouraging!

Barrie, welcome to my blog! Thanks so much for organizing your book review club. It’s also fun to connect with another fiction writer. I’ll be adding your YA book to my stack.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

About halfway through your review, I started to feel as though you were talking about your own work. Your entire illustrated photo commentary section had me mesmerized. I had to go back up to the beginning to reassure myself that it wasn't your own story, Sarah. The bit about the dog, tides, and the way people respond reminded me of several of your postings. When you said the SAD novel was like the next all made sense. I'm still entranced with the ice crystal photos.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, how cool! I’m thrilled to have found another writer in Maine of similar heart. His words matched the photos I had already taken. We both seek the real Maine and set our narratives during the long winter on the coast. Our writing style, however, is different: his voice is very male, and he writes about alienated single 20-somethings while I focus on families in their communities. My novel might be called S.A.D., but it's happy - a dark comedy or a comic tragedy.

Bee said...

The pairing of your review and your photographs is stunning! Not to mention the additional insight you give as a Maine resident. I think that the New York Times Book Review should link to you, Sarah!

The ice crystal photographs are mesmerizing. What exquisite patterns.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you are too kind. The NYT gave Water Dogs a similar good review. It also made the editor’s choice list. I’m totally mesmerized by ice crystals too. Let nature do the work for me.

Anonymous said...

Such beautiful writing. Funny how I've been having Maine on my mind lately, although I picture the summer coastal Maine. Interesting perspective about the cold, wintry Maine that locals know.

walk2write said...

I'd like to read this book, in the summertime, with a cold pint of Harpoon Ale close at hand. Those ice crystals should be on the cover of a book about the frailty of human relationships. Is the beer a Brunswick specialty, by the way?

Reya Mellicker said...

Your photos, and the watercolor, are exquisite. You are so talented. Looking forward to your new book.

Happy February!

Sarah Laurence said...

Kathy, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed your book review too. I love Maine in all seasons, well maybe not mud season. Winter has the best light and a quiet beauty unto its own.

W2W, Water Dogs would certainly cool you off in the summer, but it was perfect for winter. I’m completely transfixed by ice crystals, and you are right that they call for metaphor. Harpoon Ale is mentioned in Robinson’s novel. It’s a New England brew, but it originated in Boston. The locals in my novel drink Shipyard Ale which is native to Maine. We have both in our fridge. I’m waiting for my husband to come home to crack a few by the fire.

Reya, thank you. I guess I’d better keep writing then.

Elizabeth said...

Such elegant wintry delights - but so very, very cold.
You make me want to read the book.
Your photos - especially the details - are exquisite.
Loved the top water color too.
So interesting the intersection of place and writing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. You’d appreciate the fine writing and craftsmanship that went behind Water Dogs. It is a cold book, though. I need to warm up by the fire.

Charlotte Agell said...

Can't wait to read it. Loved Officer Friendly. Happened to be teaching at a retreat where Lewis R. was also teaching when I read that book of short stories (overnight). I had to tell him I was sorry I'd read it there, since I suddenly realized he was a genius and it would be hard to talk to him! It was a joke.Sort of....He's a modest person and he laughed.

D.A. Riser said...

Sarah, you blog beautifully! I love how you integrated the pictures with your book review. Since it seems it'll be awhile before I get to visit Maine, it's good to know I can console myself with an accurate depiction of it by reading Water Dogs.

A Cuban In London said...

Who says bloggers aren't readers? Who, indeed? Probably most bloggers read so we can share afterwards. And that's why I enjoy your reviews, plus the accompanying images. Another star column. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Charlotte, how fun to meet a favorite author on the page and in life simultaneously!

D.A. thank you and welcome to my blog! Water Dogs will serve you a slice of life in Maine.

ACIL, I keep hearing that Facebook/Blogs/Twitter are killing books, but all the bloggers commenting here are well read. I do enjoy that we can share our favorite books on line.

Audrey said...

Sarah, it looks like Maine outside my window today!

I've tagged you. Come see. x

Sarah Laurence said...

Audrey, I heard about the record snowfall in England. It must be amazing. I'll come visit, but I don’t do tags, sorry.

Rose said...

Great review, Sarah; you've intrigued me with this book. Your post is amazing, though, because you have the perfect photos to accompany each idea! I was struck by the image of the dad jumping in to save the Golden Retriever. You're right in that most of the books I've read that were set in Maine feature the yuppie summer tourists, rather than the natives. I much prefer reading about the "real" area, not a tourist's view of it.

Thanks for the link love; I'm going to check out the Book Review site you've linked here. I'm always on the lookout for another great book I may have overlooked!

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, sometimes I stretch my photos to match the book I’m reviewing, but this one came naturally. The dog photos are of Stella as a puppy with my daughter on Popham Beach four years ago.

Barrie is a tween/YA author, but her book review club covers other genres too. I discovered it through Bee who is another contributor.

Mary Ellen said...

I love reading your blog. It always makes me think of things I haven't thought about in a while.

I'm always interested in how writers describe the Maine social landscape. I grew up on the coast, amongst a few towns that contained a dichotomy of type: the mostly poor farmers and clamdiggers as well as the wealthy summer residents who were really 'from away.' My family was somewhere between the two.

I remember getting out of work in Brunswick, heading to the Intown Pub (which is probably closed now) and being surprised - if not irritated - at the khaki-and-birkenstock crowd sitting at 'my table.' Again, there I was in the middle - not drinking beer, but not Apple Martini's, either. I guess I'll always be a vodka collins kind of girl.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mary Ellen, I’d be curious to hear your take on Water Dogs. Robinson focuses quite a bit on socioeconomic dichotomy. The brothers’ father was a working class local but the mother is a therapist from Boston. The protagonist’s girlfriend is a short-order chef who went to Bowdoin.

No Intown Pub (great name!) in Brunswick anymore. My husband and his buddies drink at Joshua’s, but the last time I went there, someone pinched my butt. If I meet my girlfriends for a drink, we favor the Blue Dog Bar at Henry and Marty’s for wine, cocktails and desserts. The Sea Dog over the bridge in Topsham is a good place for a pint on the river. Frontier also serves. I’d just as soon have a drink by my fire at home on these cold days.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I do so enjoy your book reviews. I should think the landscape and weather of Maine would have to be a character in itself for any book set in that amazing state.

And I adore these photos of your dog by the sea!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, thank you! You are completely right about the Maine landscape and weather.

troutbirder said...

The painting and your beautiful pictures did it for me. A golden running along a beach is about as good as it gets.
I love writing that evokes a natural setting. As to the type of me you refer to in the book review, I'm skeptical that I would find very interesting. We have quite a few live that here in rural Minnesota. What the heck many of them are my neighbors.

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, sometimes we look to escape in literature, other times we want to come home. I agree about the natural setting – it makes a book especially evocative.

Unknown said...

I' about half way thru Lew's book Water Dogs, and it reminds me of Nobody's Fool, another samll-town-set novel that makes me want to move there now! I am from Staten Island, and while I was born there, I'm not dying there. And it's books that I mentioned that give me a peek into a possible. And your watercolors make me long to make the move up north, cold and all!

Sarah Laurence said...

Steven, welcome to my blog and thank you. Russo is another one of my favorite authors after Straight Man and Empire Falls. Nobody’s Fool is in my stack – my parents gave it to me for my birthday. I’m looking forward to reading it. I grew up in NYC. I love living in Maine except at this time of year – mud season.