Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1894
Spartina is John Casey’s third book, following the novel An American Romance (1977) and Testimony and Demeanor (1979), a collection comprising four stories. A dark-horse winner of the 1989 National Book Award for fiction, Spartina has been described by Casey as the first book in a projected trilogy set in Rhode Island.
Dick Pierce, the protagonist of Spartina, reminds one—superficially at least—of Mac in An American Romance. Both are ruggedly individualistic men wholly out of step with their times and their societies. Mac, the Canadian northwoodsman, however, is manipulated shamefully by Anya, the clever, sophisticated theater director whose only aim in life is to experience all of it even if doing so leaves other people’s lives in shambles. An American Romance’s resolution takes place in Iowa, a third of a continent away from the Rhode Island setting of Casey’s new novel.
In some ways, Dick Pierce is threatened with being the last of his line. Granted, he has two sons, Tom and Charlie, to carry on the family name, as well as another child secreted away in Elsie Buttrick’s accommodating womb, unbeknown for a while to his wife and sons. Elsie, Dick’s neighbor, is the local game warden; she comes into Dick’s life in an official capacity when she tries to enforce the law against poaching clams, one of Dick’s avocations, in the salt marshes of a bird sanctuary near his home.
Dick fears being the last of his line in the sense that he will perhaps be the last man of property in a family that dates its American origins to before the nation’s founding. He inherits less materially than any of his predecessors have since the eighteenth century; it is likely that his sons will inherit less than he has and may not ever have the means to own property.
The Pierce family, once proprietors of baronial holdings, has, little by little, sold off its land to meet life’s routine expenses and dire emergencies. His great uncle had to sell off the family residence, the Wedding Cake, to make ends meet. Dick’s dead father, like him a stubborn Yankee, had been forced to sell off nearly all of his diminished inheritance to pay for an extended hospital stay that was not covered by insurance. He bore the dubious distinction of having paid the highest hospital bill ever racked up at South County Hospital by a patient without insurance. To pay the bill, Dick’s father had to rob the pillars that then sustained, however feebly, the illusion that the Pierces were people of property.
When the old man died in true Yankee fashion with all his debts paid, Dick was left with an acre of ground, a ramshackle house, an eighteen-foot skiff, and a modest dream: to be his own boss and to have his own boat by the time he reaches forty. When the narrative opens, however, Dick’s time has run out. He is forty-two. His hair-trigger temper has gotten him fired from every job he has ever held. His rotten disposition—which reflects deep, internalized anger, bitterness, and resentment—has made it impossible for him to get the $10,000 bank loan he needs to complete building the fifty-foot fishing boat that lies unfinished under plastic tenting in his yard. The boat is Dick’s passport to achieving his dream of independence.
Casey does not leave the matter of Dick’s disposition to the reader’s imagination; he shows a man consistently angry at the world, a man weighed down and subdued by the huge chip on his shoulder, a man who does not have a telephone because he pulled it from the wall during a childish temper tantrum, a man who poaches clams more as a way of giving society its comeuppance than as a way to enhance his own income. Perhaps Dick takes what is not his because in some perverse way he views it as really his. Everything around him, after all, once belonged to the Pierces. The family name persists in place names like Pierce Creek. Does that not make it his in some small, convoluted way?
The narrative begins with Dick adrift in his eighteen-foot skiff all he can afford at this point. Instantly, Dick is projected as a loner, as a man at sea, a person adrift. The smallness of the skiff the smallness of the man in it, the smallness of his state—Rhode Island—and the vastness of the nature that surrounds set the scene for a story about someone overwhelmed by life. The salt marshes in which Dick sails are clogged with spartina, a rugged grass that can suck nourishment from the salt water and the muck beneath it. It filters out the poison (salt) and sustains itself on what is left. Dick’s quest in essence is to find a way to do the same, to filter the poison out of life so that he can sustain himself on the residue.
Spartina survives in the face of incredible odds. Does one detect a faint echo of Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s acceptance speech, to the effect that mankind will not only survive but will prevail? Does one sense the shadow of Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago as he gets his wish in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) to catch the huge marlin, then is almost killed in his three-day ordeal to land it? Does Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab lurk somewhere in the tall marsh grass, smiling to see the course his literary blood has taken since Melville gave him birth in Moby Dick (1851)?
Dick Pierce, like all literary protagonists worth their salt, quests, but he quests modestly. He quests as Casey appears to think his society quests. He quests in a blue-collar way. He is the little man, the loner, the individualist struggling to keep from being crushed by a corporate enterprise that has created a nation to which Dick is decidedly not happily attuned.
Faced with his unfulfilled dream, and, at forty-two, having his just share of middle-age jitters, it is not surprising that Dick falls into bed with the buxom game warden, the well-educated feminist Elsie Buttrick, when she begins to investigate his poaching activities in the bird sanctuary. It is time for Dick to have a fling. He obviously needs that splash of color in his otherwise beige existence that might—just might—revitalize him.
Essentially unattractive on the surface, Dick gradually unfolds as a more sensitive person than one would suspect, a man trapped in mediocrity and, to make matters worse, surrounded by those who have succeeded better than he can ever hope to, the nouveau riche who have flocked in from nearby cities to occupy oceanside condominiums and houses—in Dick’s eyes pockmarks on a landscape that once was labeled ’Pierce.” Dick scrounges to make a few dollars now and then by taking these new arrivals out on his boat, although every time he sets sail with them, he drives a stake into his own heart.
Dick is angry almost to the point of erupting completely, but he is essentially inarticulate, and his inarticulateness is what probably saves him from a devastating eruption. His minor personality tremors surely signal what bubbles not far beneath his taciturn Yankee surface. His big eruption never comes, however, because Elsie understands Dick and puts him in touch with an inner self of which he had until now been only remotely aware. She brings about the change in him that finally enables him to get the bank loan he needs as a first step toward fulfilling the dream that he now no longer has to defer. In the long run, he, his family, and society benefit by the improvement in his fortunes, all brought about ironically because of his extramarital affair with Elsie.
Dick finishes building the fifty-foot fishing boat that he names the Spartina-May, adding the last element to the name out of deference to his wife, but never referring to the boat as anything but Spartina. Dick observes some amenities, but he does not really believe much in them or want to practice them. His saving grace and perhaps his most significant inheritance from the Pierces is an unflagging, at times exasperating, integrity that is also the basis of his pride, a hubris that very nearly becomes his downfall, but from whose extremes Elsie saves him.
Spartina—an American romance to the core, even more so than Casey’s earlier book that bore that title—is part of a romantic tradition in the United States that traces its lineage to writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, William Gilmore Simms, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The latter-day Natty Bumppos and Rip Van Winkles usually are more sexually oriented and psychologically aware than their nineteenth century counterparts, but they participate in American life in ways reminiscent of their literary forebears. Dick Pierce belongs in the gallery with them, as do Studs Lonigan and Jay Gatsby, Robert Cohn and Tom Joad, and a host of other twentieth century protagonists—all in their ways modern antiheroes.
Spartina is carefully observed and is presented in the kind of controlled detail that marks the best writing of authors as various as Marcel Proust and Henry James, although there is nothing derivative or directly imitative in the way John Casey writes. The contemporary to whom Casey seems mostly directly comparable is the British writer Graham Swift, whose Waterland captures the essence of nature in much the way Casey’s work does.
Along with being meticulously observed, Spartina is at times funny, at times exciting. Its prurient mud-wrestling scene with Elsie is, if not enticing, at least extremely provocative and unfailingly amusing. The book reaches its height of interest after the Spartina-May is launched. Dick sails her into the open sea and there rides out a hurricane that threatens to end all his dreams. The Spartina-May comes through, however, and Dick’s new self-awareness suggests that his life has turned around.
Although Spartina has a happy ending, the effect is not saccharine: It is deeply satisfying, hard-earned. As one reads of Dick’s riding out the hurricane, one is sure that the Pierces will make it, that the sons will keep not only the name but the ideals of their elders alive in South County beside Narragansett Bay. When Dick gets to land, he realizes where he belongs. Probably no generation of Pierces past had been so sorely tried as Dick has been since the family planted its roots in the area; but the crisis is past, the storm has strengthened rather than destroyed him.
As one reads the final pages of Spartina, the image of Sister Carrie sitting in a plush Chicago hotel in her rocking chair comes to mind. She overcomes in ways different from those which Dick employs, but their paths are nevertheless quite similar. A redemption-through-sex theme is as inescapable in Spartina as it is in the early plays of William Inge.
A final word must be said about Casey’s characterization. The verisimilitude of his depiction is almost eerie. He is particularly persuasive in presenting his three major characters, Dick and May Pierce and Elsie Buttrick. He resists any temptation to be sentimental. It is this detached quality, this objective presentation of reality, that makes Spartina an exceptionally powerful novel.
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44
The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXVI, January 31, 1990, p. A3.
Library Journal. CXIV, June 1, 1989, p. 144.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 25, 1989, p. 7.
Newsweek CXIV, December 25, 1989, p. 75.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, April 21, 1989, p. 79.
Time. CXXXIV, July 17, 1989, p. 84.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 4, 1989, p. 3.
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