- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Cape Cod, the hook of land and dune that curls into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, a place long loved by writers and artists and in the second half of the last century made chic by Kennedys, is the setting and also in various ways the subject of three new novels.
Actually, Ralph Graves' Champagne Kisses, Cyanide Dreams (David R. Godine, $24.95, 256 pages) takes place on Martha's Vineyard, an island extension of the Cape as it once was, a pleasingly remote, exclusive summer resort. Mr. Graves, a former editor for Time and Life and a summer resident of the Vineyard, says in his dedication that the victims and suspects in his mystery are imaginary but "the celebrity invasion of Martha's Vineyard is all too real." The subject is the murder of "a born storyteller and a congenital liar" named Mildred Silk and it takes place at a dinner party where she's entertaining guests from the "celebrity-intellectual world of books, theater, art, opera and know-it-all conversation." Any of her guests could have committed the crime and all are at one time or another either suspects or subsequent victims.
The tone is hip and irreverent and the observations of Vineyard attitudes are astute. Of West Chop, the exclusive town at the northern tip of the island, the narrator says that its image has been damaged by "interlopers" like Millie's late husband, Harry, who made his fortune as a real estate developer. "Years ago, a man who built shopping malls could not be a proper West Chopper. On the other hand, a Boston banker who loaned money to a man who built shopping malls could be the perfect West Chopper. But that distinction is long gone."
Ultimately, though, the story is thin, the mystery's unraveling not quite as entertaining as its setup. Perhaps in his next book, Mr. Graves will probe deeper into the idiosyncrasies of and changes in Vineyard life. He obviously has a feel for them.

Anguish about the spoiling of beach communities by the invasion of people with more money than care for them is alluded to in Mr. Graves' book; in Spectacular Happiness (Scribner, $25, 316 pages) by Peter D. Kramer it is a central theme. Chip Samuels, the book's protagonist, is a kind of humane Unabomber who protests the overbuilding of the Cape by blowing up beachfront mansions without ever injuring anyone; indeed his skill is such that each explosion of an empty home is preceded by an elegant display of fireworks.
Though he is a suspect in the crimes, Chip, a professor of the literature of anarchism and a part-time handyman who grew up on the Cape, becomes a celebrity television commentator on the meaning of the blasts. Thinking of himself as an anti-capitalist and revolutionary, he is stunned to become a popular hero.
The premise is provocative and the narrative, cast as Chip's letter to his teenaged son, multilayered. It weaves together philosophy ("Anarchism redistributes anxiety. How different capitalism looks when owners of second homes share a level of exposure felt more often by the poor …") with memories of childhood and of the wife and son from whom he is separated by a bitter divorce. He writes with passion of books he loves, with tenderness of teaching his son to read. The mix is at once exhilarating and daunting for the reader. Chip has so much to say about so many different things.
"Spectacular Happiness" is a first work of fiction by Mr. Kramer, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and the author of "Listening to Prozac" and "Should You Leave?" His novel offers another take on some of the issues he considered there the long-term impact of mood altering drugs, the tug between the needs for emotional connection and for autonomy. In fact, the novel reads like the transcript of a long, highly literate psychoanalysis with many loose associations, leading to an ultimate simplicity. "It occurred to me that I was heureux," Chip concludes, "… lucky in love, blessed, and yes, happy, as much as any man is in this mercantile moment."

Ollie Cahoon, the narrator of Hard Bottom (University Press of New England, $24.95, 347 pages ) by G. F. Michelsen, is another Cape Cod native disgusted by the overdevelopment of the place he calls home. Like Chip, he's estranged from the wife he loves and he fears losing his son. But the similarities in the books end there. Ollie is not a philosopher opposing society; he is a fisherman, uneducated, crude and furious at the ecological and legal changes that are destroying the world he grew up in, making the work he loves increasingly difficult.
Mr. Michelsen sets Ollie's story against a background of information about the Cape. He gives us detailed descriptions of fishing that will challenge the vocabulary of the landlubber. There are maps and excerpts from a geological study, fragments from "Children's Tales of Olde Cape Cod," transcriptions of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather reports, a schedule of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings from Falmouth to Provincetown. Each chapter begins with the coordinates of the location where it takes place as in "Sam, 41 degrees 42'N; 69 degrees 59'W." This information enhances the book's salty feel.
But the tone is set by Mr. Michelsen's writing. Though the use of the present tense gives the narrative urgency, what dominates is crude language, repetition and a stretching for image that truly strains the reader's patience. There is the frequent use of obscenity typical of our modern idiom. Ollie's stomach churns, he's hungover and he obsesses about cigarettes on practically every page. And his descriptions simply try too hard. "The dose of digital information washes through us like an enema," he says at one point. Out at sea, he observes "four foot swells greasy as Muzak out of the north." Later, "fear … swarms out of my gut like Hollywood assassins."
This is too bad. Rather than enhancing the reader's appreciation of the story, this unlovely writing gets in the way of it. And by emphasizing the locality, Mr. Michelsen obscures the classic nature of Ollie's tragedy. He knows how to do something the world no longer needs. Having never known any truth beyond his trade and his home, he is without moorings when these are threatened.
And yet when, finally, Ollie understands that raising his child is even more demanding and more important than fishing and decides that, despite his instinct to flee, he will stick around no matter what, it is his work on the water that provides the metaphor that will guide him; "… my standing fast will be as on a fishing boat, where you cope from crisis to crisis, and keep what course you can." The ecology of the Cape is a detail here, the human journey from confusion to clarity the essential, moving story.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.


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