Sunday, October 4, 2009

By Lewis Robinson
Random House, $25, 256 pages

By Castle Freeman Jr.
Steerforth, $13.95, 176 pages

By Ron Currie Jr.
Viking, $25.95, 320 pages

Good stories have been coming out of New England ever since the Mayflower eased into Plymouth Harbor. The trend continues with three recent novels from as yet little-known writers who hail from the flinty northeastern territory and seem poised to communicate and celebrate its distinctive admixture of tireless diligence and soft-spoken stubbornness.

There was a time in the early years of the republic, when New England culture was American culture. Emerson and Thoreau, Longfellow and Whittier and Lowell, Alcotts of all shapes and sizes, the Atlantic Monthly and The Old Farmer’s Almanac — all were assiduously read and widely admired, at a time when the virtues of literacy and civility elicited universal respect, if not outright envy.

But things changed as the nation expanded and ambition reigned, and the worship of eloquent simplicity came to appear … well, quaint. Realism stretched the boundaries of the country’s imagination, and its basically secluded northeast corner became less a place where ideas strolled and exercised, more merely a nice place to visit.

Things changed again in the early 1980s with Carolyn Chute’s “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” a brilliantly abrasive revelation of smalltown poverty, vagrant sexuality and casual criminality that brought a whiff of Erskine Caldwell to the bracing downeast air, and spawned a new generation of tough-minded realists.

Lewis Robinson of Portland, Maine, made his mark with an acclaimed 2003 collection of diamond-hard short stories, “Officer Friendly,” and now weighs in with a compellingly acrid debut novel. “Water Dogs” chronicles hard times in a midcoast Maine town whose character is disappearing as surely as are its occupants’ hopes of living, working and perhaps even prospering there.

Or, as Mr. Robinson’s protagonist Bennie reflects, “The Maine he knew was getting overhauled, burdened by interlopers and nostalgia-addled white-collar suburbs in the middle of the woods.” A sure sign of the times — a violent paintball game played in a blizzard, during which Bennie is injured and hospitalized and a fellow player unaccountably disappears — initiates a mystery that the recovered Bennie (a college drop-out living with his older brother Littlefield in their family’s rundown home) sets out to solve.

The mystery itself is pedestrian, but this perfectly pitched novel’s ambiance, dialogue and unsettling atmosphere (it’s always snowing, or about to begin snowing) conspire to create a disturbing fable of family dysfunction, fraternal loyalty and estrangement, and a potent impression of nemesis scratching at the back door like a colld and hungry dog.

In the opaque and threatening figure of Littlefield, Mr. Robinson creates a veritable older brother from hell, and sets two siblings on a collision course fated to unveil all their family’s nervously guarded secrets. “Water Dogs” begins with what sounds lie the ticking of a clock that always runs slow. Almost before we know it, this becomes the sound of a bomb cannily placed out of sight, and very nearly out of mind.

In Vermont — author Castle Freeman Jr.’s grimly economical fourth novel, “All That I Have,” another remote town is endangered — here by a group of otherwise unidentified Russians who’ve taken possession of a lavish country home, and the local hellion who has robbed them then refused to save his life by running away.

The complications are gradually sorted out by Mr. Freeman’s narrator, county sheriff Lucian Wing, who might be described as a considerably more sharp-witted and even-tempered Barney Fife. He’s a peace officer in the purest sense. Who functions by never overreacting and by accepting the inevitability that “People are going to do what they’re going to do,” and it makes more sense to encourage them to act rationally than to lock everybody up.

Wing’s patience puts him at odds with his young wife, Clemmie, overzealous deputy Lyle Keen, and perpetual troublemaker Sean Duke, the handsome charmer who has stolen “the Russians’” top-secret personal property (along with the hearts, and bodies of numerous local females), and seems indifferent to Sheriff Wing’s determination to protect him from his own recklessness.

This novel’s mystery isn’t half-bad (though it’s no puzzle), and Freeman deftly juggles the machinations of criminals and their accomplices and enablers, competing law officers, and a smartly observed townful of taciturn folks who’d no more waste a word than use up a winter’s supply of firewood by December. When a novel’s main character says of a semi-reformed boozer “If he don’t drink like he did, it’s because he’s about topped up,” we realize that both author and character know their business about as well as they need to.

Even more serious business is investigated in Maine — author Ron Currie Jr.’s ambitious successor to his Vonnegut-inflected debut novel “God Is Dead.” In “Everything Matters!,” a young New Englander’s education takes the alarming shape of a dead-certain conviction that our planet is not long for the universe.

It begins with a Voice addressing the fetus soon to be known as John “Junior” Thibodeau “In Utero — calmly proclaiming that a comet will strike and destroy Earth when Junior is 36, in the year 2010.

Subsequently, Junior grows up terrified, amid his underachieving father’s determined hope to provide, his alcoholic mom’s genuine if unhelpful love, and his drug-addicted brother Rodney’s improbable zigzag path toward becoming a major-league ballplayer. Meanwhile, Junior does His best not to unravel as omens of apocalypse (e.g., the Challenger explosion) multiply, terrorism prospers, and the countdown (in which the novel’s chapters are arranged) proceeds until … well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

Suffice it to say that this John — not the Baptist, though surely a prophet without honor in his own country — becomes a kind of Candide, bringing his message to an unbelieving world placidly slouching toward ArmagedDon. Over the top? Of course. But Mr. Currie’s razor-sharp intelligence, energy, and strong sense of narrative logic make it a death trip you won’t want to miss.

All these novels’ characters and their dilemmas may be tucked into a remote corner of the northeast, but intrepid readers ought to brave the rutted roads and unforgving weather to hear what they have to say. You can get there from here, and these three splendid novels prove it.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who lives, reads and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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