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The Boat That Rage Built : SPARTINA by John Casey (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 375 pp.; 0-394-50098-9)

July 23, 1989|Dan Byrne | Byrne is a former news editor at The Times. and

Dick Pierce is a Rhode Island lobsterman who lives near a salt marsh in which a grass called spartina grows. Spartina is tenacious stuff that survives by separating the water from the salt.

Dick's roots are in the salt marsh. A creek there is named Pierce Creek after his family. At one time, Pierces owned all of Sawtooth Island, but his forbears sold it off piecemeal. Houses of the rich are scattered around the island and a resort development is planned.

The rich, or the people he perceives as rich, and what they are doing on Sawtooth Island keep Dick more or less in a state of rage.

He has a temper and a sharp tongue. He's hard on his two boys and curt with his wife, May. He earns a tenuous living by hiring out as a hand on fishing boats. As a fisherman, he is superb. He is also a craftsman, and it is this talent that he is using to build a fishing boat.

Dick needs his own boat, his own livelihood, because his sullen anger has left him all but unemployable.

Parker, not quite a friend, is an amoral fellow with a zest for life who cheats or at least takes advantage good-naturedly of everyone, including Dick, whom he likes, or at least understands.

Parker sums up a lengthy analysis of Dick's hostility with this:

"You spend a lot of time dividing up the world into the idle rich and the true-blue salts. The unworthy and the worthy. You get to feel salty as hell. . . . You also get to be poor."

Dick desperately needs money to finish his boat but cannot bring himself to make any effective effort to borrow it. Too humiliating.

He finds himself going out on Parker's boat and doing things he doesn't want to do, including running cocaine and then getting cheated out of his fair share.

At this juncture, Elsie Buttrick arrives on the scene. Dick and Elsie have known each other from the time she was a young (rich) girl. They get involved after she returns from college (Brown and Yale Forestry School) and becomes an officer with the state Natural Resources Department.

Soon they are making love a lot and talking a lot more. A new Dick emerges. A boor until now, he shows a depth and sensitivity that we never had a hint of before.

A character in the book tells Elsie and Dick about her father who has just died. She speaks lovingly of the man and his life. Dick recalls later that the daughter "had sifted her old man like flour through her fingers."

A felicitous phrase, but not one you would expect from the man who away from Elsie snarls obscenities at just about everyone he comes across.

Elsie, after Dick, is the book's most fully realized character. She's fun, bright, carefree, self-aware. It isn't easy to understand what she sees in Dick. But that's not the flaw. It's what Dick becomes when he is with her--sensitive, more self-aware, introspective, hardly the embittered salt-marsh fisherman. It's hard to understand how the two personalities coexist.

The novel bogs down in tedium of their incessant conversation, although much of it is fresh and inventive. At one point, annoyed with Dick's obsessive distaste for the haves, Elsie tells him, "I'm not rich, I'm privileged." It's a distinction that Dick doesn't care to make.

With Elsie's help in arranging the financing, Dick completes his boat and calls it Spartina, tacking on his wife's name, May, as a concession to local convention.

May calls it the boat that rage built. Dick, however, drains some of the rage out of the stout wooden hull and himself by surviving alone aboard it as it weathers a savage hurricane.

The hurricane is the turning point in the book. Elsie is happy to be pregnant by Dick and fully prepared to let him return to May while she looks forward to single-motherhood.

May reacts woodenly and inexplicably when Dick tells her. The author never did explain her to us. May is just vaguely pathetic and there.

Dick has his boat, some hard earned self-knowledge gained through Elsie and the hurricane, and the realization, not clearly explained, that there is more to bind him to May than just their two children.

But he knows he'll never lose all of the hard edges, or hard lines as he calls them.

Author Casey teaches English literature and writing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. This is his second novel. His first, "An American Romance," appeared 11 years ago.

Casey is a careful writer. Nothing is contrived. The novel has a sense of place and most of his characters are carefully conceived and drawn. For me, the problem with the novel is Dick. Present on every page raging or ruminating, he is quite a problem indeed. As the salt marsh fisherman he's real. As Elsie's lover, he thinks and talks too much. And too well.

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