- - Monday, July 29, 2019


Martha’s Vineyard, like our town, is known for its seasonal highs and celebrated populace, each having a public persona and a different private one. Outlanders see our city as an Acropolis of museums, or Olympus of monuments, or “the Swamp,” while to us it’s where our neighbors live and kids grow up; it’s home. As for the Vineyard, outsiders like little old ladies from Dubuque and subscribers to Vanity Fair read about it as a summer playground of the rich, famous and politically savvy, while its own people know it as an island, a place surrounded by water, the habitat of fishes. 

For Janet Messineo, who arrived nearly a lifetime ago, it’s the fishes that matter, and the water that sustains them, the island itself and the islanders. A self-styled fisherman, not a woman who fishes, she has written a keeper in “Casting into the Light.” Part memoir, it sketches a dystopian inland childhood — at 11 she ran away from home three times — then a hippie adolescence, living in tipis, sojourning in Haight-Ashbury, homesteading in New Hampshire. 

She first heard of this place by chance. “‘What’s Martha’s Vineyard?’ I asked. … ‘It’s an island!’ Being from a small mill town, I pictured palm trees, monkeys and bananas. That sounded fascinating.” She visited, and stayed, first odd-jobbing and babysitting, getting rousted by the police for mopery, then settling in and learning to fish. She was an early waitress at the Black Dog, the waterfront restaurant that gave the world the iconic t-shirt: silhouetted black lab with collar.

“Now living surrounded by ocean, I had an idea we should learn to fish,” so she bought a husband a department-store rod and reel. A 9-year-old native taught her to jig for squid, which she used as bait for larger stuff. Captivated by gear in a tackle shop, she pestered real fishermen to take her along on beach treks. Soon she was hooked, to borrow a term, by the mystique of surf-fishing for the legendary striper.

This is the talismanic fish, the striped bass (a.k.a rockfish in Chesapeake country). They grow big, up to 80 pounds rarely. Canny, they’ll swim against a rock to shake a hook or break the line. They are hard to encounter, let alone to catch, and typically fight like fury. Once common as gulls, stripers feed at night, so the angler who would catch them haunts beaches at night, night after night, and often goes home emptyhanded at dawn. It was two years into her apprenticeship that Ms. Messineo beached her first striper. 

Autobiography aside, this accidental social history reveals a community, letting the reader infer its nature. In years past, the author sold the fish she caught to local restaurants, where she worked as a waitress. She tells the bittersweet story that she and her husband adopted and raised a special needs child to dark manhood. She quotes a poem by the late Conrad Neumann, an island boy who became a distinguished oceanographer, “amateur poet and a stellar fisherman” — a pillar on his home island. Indeed, a bright thread in the narrative is the sense of a social fabric binding the island at large and fishermen of every gender.  

An unschooled writer, she offers lucid prose without frills or poetics in sentences as natural as waves: “It was a grey and lousy day but still no fish. We beat the water to death.” The brightest color in some passages are the names of lures: Redfins, Atom Junior, Cinto’s Magnets, Crocodile, Danny plugs.  

Like an amateur learning to cast, sometimes she snarls sentences into backlash: “Standing at the top of the spectacular Gay Head cliffs, you can see all the way to Nomans Land looking east, and facing southwest you see the string of the Elizabeth Islands.” Last time I looked, forbidden Nomans (an abandoned bombing range) lay west of Gay Head, and the Elizabeths north.

Ms. Messineo passes island landmarks and in passing offers tips on how to fish. Her plainspoken paean has topical overlap with John Hershey’s elegiac “Blues,” John Cole’s mighty “Striper,” Linda Greenlaw’s engaging “Hungry Ocean” and David Finney’s “The Big One” (reviewed in these pages 10 years ago). Call me hooked on fishy books, a perennial outlier who has visited this island half the summers of my life; I can’t get enough. 

A well-made book, it has a handsome old map on the endpapers and informative illustrations throughout. A deft touch appears on the cover — a fisherman casts from a beach in black-and-white, enhanced with color and “spot varnish” to highlight chosen elements: the title’s key words and the fisherman’s flying lure. Kudos for the designer. 

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Chevy Chase, Md,, writes about American history and culture.

• • •

By Janet Messineo
Pantheon, $26.95, 308 pages

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