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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.
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on May 24, 1999
Bogglingly, outrageously, offensively, the NYTBR blurb on the cover of the Vintage paperback compares this novel to The Old Man & The Sea, & even to Moby Dick. Anyone who has read and appreciated those books who can find even a shred of truth in such comparisons ought to be thrown to the gulls. Perhaps if some sensible editor had fileted this thing down to the length of Old Man, there would have been hope. As it is, Casey's protagonist is as flat as a dead calm, the narrative is as knotted as fishing reel backlash, and the dialogue (forced exposition, predictable character stereotyping, and banality to the gunwales) rambles on annoyingly like an after-idling twin-screw diesel. But if you like trite boating & fishing metaphors, you're in for a treat: Casey overworks virtually every moment in terms of the wind, the tides, the waves, the boat, the bait bucket. It's so predictable, so tedious, so fake that it would be burlesque (I did start to laugh out loud) if Casey weren't trying so hard to take it so seriously. Study up on daytime television drama, get an encyclopedia of maritime lore, and you too can win a National Book Award.
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on January 23, 2000
And I'd want my money back too, if this hadn't been a gift. Some gift.
It's astonishing that Casey is a professor of English Lit, because this book reads like like it was written by an undergrad with delusions of adequacy (and one who ain't exactly carrying full credit hours).
There ain't a likable character in the book. There isn't even one you'd like to hate. Casey even had the gall to give three minor characters almost identical names -- May, Mary, Marie -- as if reading this thing wasn't enough of a chore as it was without trying to figure out who was who.
Such plot as there is -- it's your basic story of rebirth and redemption -- could have been dished up in half the pages. Frankly, I finished the damned thing more out of morbid curiousity than anything else.
It's difficult to believe this book actually won the National Book award... and the pulled quote from the NY Times? "Greatest American novel since Old Man and the Sea?" Please. TC Boyle can say more about the human condition in one ten-page short story, and entertain you at the same time. Give this loser a wide berth.
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on December 20, 1998
As a former resident of the 'South County' area of the book, I was immediately attracted to John Casey's ability to describe the land, sea, and denizens of this part of Rhode Island. The set-up kept me enthralled as the author carefully revealed fascinating new locations and players in the main character's life. I began to sense the foreboding presence of the big storm mentioned on the book's back cover . . .
Unfortunately, the second half of the book seemed to degenerate into near-endless pillow talk therapy sessions with a brief [Insert storm chapter here.] episode. Casey does not spend countless pages describing the minutiae of physical objects; he DOES display an excellent ability to capture the way people converse and, in the case of two characters who are very close, this goes on beyond the point of soap opera.
Overall, I would have appreciated a less formulaic plot and a lot less whining from two characters whose connection I felt was tenuous. If you liked the healing aspects of The Shipping News but longed for more dialog then you might enjoy this book. If you want a more meaty storm novel from recent years, I would suggest Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone.
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on November 19, 1998
For a major award winning novel, this was an incredible disappointment. Since reading this one I've wondered what the National Book Foundation is trying to say about creative fiction since 1989. As I read I felt *no* connection with the protagonist, and I literally predicted the outcome several dozen pages in advance. The storm he weathers was just too trite and easy. The philosophizing at the end of the book couldn't redeem the novel's uncreative and banal nature. I found nothing heroic about Dick Pierce or his life. You can say he's an average man's hero, and that's fine. However, I think there are better, more creatively examples throughout American and World Literature. I don't say this very often, but I can't believe I spent the money on this novel. Had I known it was *this* uninspired of a novel, I would have never read it.
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on October 26, 1998
I have unpleasant memories of the Old Man and the Sea from Junior High English class, so I purchased Spartina with some misgivings, as the premise of both books seemed similar. But, this is one of the most well-crafted books I have read in a long, long time. Unlike most popular novels, the book did not revolve solely around the plot. Unlike most literary novels, the book did not revolve solely around character development. Rather, both plot and character were woven together to create a splendid story that was hard to put down, even at 2 a.m. on a work night. The writing was intelligent without being self-consciously clever, and I kept thinking about the book long after I had finished it. Bravo!
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on November 26, 2001
I can't believe that this book received so many negative reviews - it's one of the finest novels I've read in several years. It reminded me of Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent in some ways - also an excellent book.
Just because a character isn't someone you'd want to be friends with doesn't mean it's a powerful, moving piece of work. I enjoyed it even more when I slowed down near the end and took the time to appreciate the way the book moves in currents, like its subjects (emotions and the sea). If you're looking for fast-paced and superficial, look elsewhere, but if you like literary fiction that rewards thoughtful reading, this is a masterpiece.
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on April 1, 1999
A friend lent me the book and I was not too keen to read a boating story. But based on her recommendation, I thought I'd give the book a chance.
I found myself quickly caught up in the lives of these fresh characters. Casey does a wonderful job creating vivid locales along the RI shore.
I enjoyed the progression of the plot and the introduction of new characters--the swamp yankees as well as the well-to-do dabblers. The relationships were well-concieved and well-dialogued.
The only disappointment was the actual storm sequence in the book. It does seem a little tacked on and too easily resolved.
Overall, a very good read.
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on June 27, 1999
I finally finished the book a month after throwing it across the room when Dick Pierce set the engine in his new boat. Insulting to those of us who know the process of bedding the engine. Those precious bolts are set in a critical pattern within a human hair's width between laminated wood tied structurally to or through the keelson. What don't you ever ever do? Let the engine mounts scrape the threads of those virgin bolts no matter how dramatic the sound may read. If you do it on the page and get a National Book Award, well fine. But don't expect clemency from readers who know fakery when it scrapes their threads.
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on September 12, 2000
Here is the full context of the infamous excerpt from The New York Times Book Review that blares from the cover of "Spartina", and has misled and rightfully infuriated many readers. Key words missing from excerpt on book cover: "going" and "fishing":
"It is this fearless romantic insistence on lyric, even mythic symbolism, coupled with the relentless salt-smack clarity of realistic detail, that makes ''Spartina'' just possibly the best American novel about going fishing since ''The Old Man and the Sea,'' maybe even ''Moby-Dick.''"
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