- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

THE WOODEN NICKEL
By William Carpenter
Little, Brown, $23.95, 346 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

Carolyn Chute's Beans of Egypt, Maine, would feel right at home with the vagrant hero of this foulmouthed and flinty second novel from the Maine poet and author of "A Keeper of Sheep."
In that debut novel, William Carpenter (who teaches literature at the College of the Atlantic located on Maine's Mount Desert Island) told a fairly conventional, if decidedly melodramatic, story about a rape victim's coming of age in a New England picture-postcard town eager to protect its status as a popular tourist attraction: sort of a cross between almost any John Irving novel and Peter Benchley's "Jaws."
If political correctness reared its head a bit too obtrusively therein, "The Wooden Nickel" reverses that emphasis, rudely and hilariously. Its instrument is the salty, sullen, irrepressibly profane voice of its protagonist Lucas "Lucky" Lunt, a lobsterman in the fictional midcoast Maine town of Orphan Point who's stubbornly refusing to yield to the momentum of progress, or to fall apart despite multiple angioplasties that have turned him into "a forty-six-year-old medical experiment."
Lucky's bad luck is typified by the day (April 15) on which the novel opens. A late season snowstorm has blown in, local lobster buyer and dealer Clyde Hannaford is squeezing the fishermen who supply his monopolistic business, and there's discontent in the Lunt household. Lucky's wife Sarah carefully watches his diet and proscribes his favorite habits (smoking and drinking); college-bound daughter Kristen despairs of her father's cantankerous crudeness; and teenaged son Kyle, a skinhead and high-school dropout, has obviously inherited his old man's native genius for antisocial behavior.
Lucky, a Vietnam vet and rock-ribbed conservative (though he scorns the very idea of political affiliation), hates almost everything: Bill and Hillary Clinton (the action takes place in our very recent past), summer people, environmentalists, "artistic" types, foreigners, homosexuals (especially since it seems likely that Kyle is becoming one), and a teetering economy that makes the independent "little man" a species more endangered than the marauding harbor seals for which Lucky harbors righteous murder in his heart.
Mr. Carpenter keeps a nice balance between the consistent focus on Lucky's abrasive sensibility and the novel's busy plot, which shifts into high gear when Kyle's unwillingness to work with his dad leaves Lucky in search of a "stern man" to join him aboard his boat, The Wooden Nickel. The only available and willing candidate for the job appears to be Clyde Hannaford's much younger bombshell of a wife Ronette ("a woman you should have to be twenty-one to even look at").
Lucky hires Ronette (who has split with Clyde), and Mr. Carpenter makes their bickering partnership a feisty X-rated delight (most of the novel's best jokes and there are a boatload are quite unprintable). Ronette proves to be the perfect antidote for the impotence caused by Lucky's heart medications. The two are soon happily, sweatily coupling below decks; and, while he's still drowning in unpaid medical bills and taxes and the specter of college expenses, Lucky learns that fatherhood is about to descend on him again.
It only gets worse. A confrontation with rival lobstermen over staked-out trapping areas provokes Lucky to fire an ill-advised "warning shot." The State Fisheries Board fines him and seizes his license, and wife Sarah (who has intuited the truth about Lucky and his "stern man") takes their house, leaving him jobless, homeless, soon to be destitute, and likely prey for a pair of less traditional Orphan Point entrepreneurs.
Ex-con Reggie Tolliver piques Lucky's curiosity with a plan to profit illegally from Reggie's thriving home security enterprise. And Japanese businessman Mr. Moto (in whose vineyards Kyle and his scruffy bosom buddies labor) offers to buy up all the oversized ("Godzilla") and hence illegal lobsters and other contraband Lucky can dredge up.
Some of Mr. Carpenter's best writing appears in such subsequent extended set pieces as the tale of The Wooden Nickel's ordeal when a rogue whale entangled in Lucky's traplines inconveniently submerges, and the climactic "rescue" of Lucky and pregnant Ronette by the lowbrow Trott brothers (darker and more criminal counterparts of the brothers Larry, Darrell, and Darrell of TV's "Newhart").
Elsewhere, there are delights aplenty distributed among Lucky's rude pronouncements on such subjects as racial and ethnic harmony ("everyone knows the Asians are taking over the earth"), his daughter's announcement that she'll be employed as an au pair ("You going into the fruit business?"), and the stimulating spectacle of Ronette even at her most distracted and least glamorous.
There's a subtle patter of imagery working throughout as well. Mr. Carpenter finds fresh and precise metaphors perfectly suited to Lucky's limited though by no means simple thought processes. His fractious home life occasions the simile, "It feels like he's in the parlor of a lobster trap." He notes that Sarah, when upset, "curled up tighter than a boiled shrimp"; and, recalling watching her sleep early on in their marriage, realizes that "He knew her face to the bone, by touch, like working on the inside of a carburetor in the dark."
The novel is a hoot with a heart, a raucous portrayal of working-class life in extremis and of a possibly dying way of life that isn't going anywhere without one hell of a struggle.
Mr. Carpenter's Lucky Lunt is an irresistibly vivid character a more than worthy companion to the salt-of-the-earth types who've been appearing in the recent northeastern regional fiction of the aforementioned Carolyn Chute, Maine's Richard Russo, and New Hampshire's Ernest Hebert. You might not want to invite Lucky to your next book club meeting. But a few bracing, expletive-filled hours aboard The Wooden Nickel with him just might do your own heart a modest world of good.

Bruce Allen is a writer and critic in Maine
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