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Potentially Brilliant, but Falls Short
on December 11, 2001
John Casey's modern novel of the sea is a good read with some interesting characters and situations (including what could have been an exciting tale about survival in the midst of a strong hurricane). The primary character of focus is Dick Pierce, a struggling fisherman, husband, father of two, and a man attempting to build his dream boat (and hence a means to a better future). "Spartina" is the story of Dick Pierce, his boat, and the moral dilemmas he finds himself facing while trying to make a better life for himself and his family.
Whether he succeeds or not is left for the reader to decide. Pierce wants his own boat to captain and has been working on a 54-footer in his back yard for several seasons. He's about $10,000 short of funds to finish his boat and must make some difficult decisions as to how to come up with these funds. His wife is running out of patience (you can't blame her) and Pierce is struggling just to make a living as a commercial fisherman along the coast of Rhode Island. As a result, he makes some dubious decisions including poaching crabs and running drugs. These decisions seem thrust upon Pierce as if he had little say in the matters. And that's one of the failings in this book--the moral dilemmas are glossed over with an aura of inevitability. You get the impression Dick Pierce is a good man in bad circumstances, and these circumstances continue to present themselves.
Along the way, Dick has an affair with a much younger woman, the scheming and patently unredeeming Elsie. This affair fills the center of the novel and reveals more about Elsie than Pierce or his relationship with his family. Naturally, Pierce continues to make misstep after misstep, but ultimately is able to finish his boat after borrowing the necessary cash. As luck would have it, a strong hurricane approaches the Rhode Island coast just as his boat (the Spartina of the novels title) is christened (and still not yet insured). In yet another curious decision, Pierce (again seemingly with little control over the decisions he makes) takes the boat out to sea in an effort to get out the hurricane's path. This scene could have been one of great action, interest, and soul searching (he is, afterall, torn between two women and potentially about to lose his boat/life's savings), but is rather short-lived. Casey really lost an opportunity to bring some excitement and meaning to this somewhat predictable story by shortchanging the storm at sea portion of the story. It's a minor quibble, but one that left this reader dissatisfied.
Pierce faces several unresolved problems back on shore and the book concludes fairly rapidly once the Spartina is cast to the sea leaving the reader a little unsure what to make of Pierce's choices or the results of those choices. Overall, a book with a lot of promise and missed opportunities. Worth reading, but don't expect to be enthralled or enlightened.