Mystery fans may recognize Stephen Dobyns as the author of four Charlie Bradshaw mysteries. This suggests that Dobyns has a certain prowess for telling a story and developing characters to go along with it. That prowess is evident with the peripheral characters in "A Boat Off the Coast," with the grinding life of minimum-wage Maine, but not with Tucker Morgan, who, unfortunately, carries the story.
Morgan is in his early 30s, wallowing in an aimless life in blue-collar Maine. He's having something of a problem shaking perpetual irresponsible adolescence. Dobyns paints a compelling portrait of Maine, a proud state reduced to catering to tourists and the landed gentry who come there for summer vacations. It is a poor state, with clear lines of demarcation between natives who bump up against their limitations about six months out of high school and outsiders.
Morgan is an outsider, despite having grown up in one Maine community long enough to attend high school. His father, a dentist, had moved the family up from Philadelphia. Tucker was a high school football hero and renegade and got into trouble too often for being too free a spirit. He joined the Army to leave, to get out, and that leads to all manner of oblique references to nasty things Tucker may have done or seen in Vietnam.
After 14 years away, Tucker returns to Maine, ostensibly to find himself. He teaches high school for a time, but bails out to build a house in the woods, something for which he doesn't have the real skills (skills he would have if he were truly a blue-collar guy and/or native). He tends bar. He cuts cordwood for a living. He drinks lots of beer and dresses in denim and white cowboy shirts. He has a big black dog named Rooster. He loves to run through the woods with a paint pistol playing war with like-hearted, beer-swilling men. His wife has recently left him, taking away their young son Jason. Tucker's wife is from a good--that is, white-collar--family in Camden. This is how we find Morgan at the beginning of "A Boat Off the Coast."
Cocaine is coming into Maine on ships that bring salt up from Brazil for winter roads. Cocaine suggests lots of fast, big money, the kind of money that buys a guy out of one predicament and into another. That's what gets Morgan involved. With enough money, he can grab his kid and pick up and leave--go somewhere else and do something else. Unfortunately for his friends, Morgan needs help. One friend shares a Vietnam history. The other dates from high school days, a nice guy who has always picked up after Tucker and is now a family man who has risen as far as manager in a chicken slaughter house. Brian Davis also works a lobster boat on the side, which is what interests Morgan. They need to motor out, meet the ship from Brazil and retrieve the bundle of cocaine dropped in the water. Things do not go according to plan. The bad guys appear and wreak mayhem on a few lives.
In a big, cathartic shoot-out, the reader is supposed to believe that Morgan sees the error in his selfish, childish ways and transforms his life on the spot. By that time, as I say, I don't care. The guy is an irredeemable jerk. And on the opposite side of catharsis, Morgan is a transformed irredeemable jerk.
The payoff here is the book itself--the land, the waterfront, the peripheral characters who inhabit the story. The writer's skills are obvious. He just needs to meet a better-class hero.