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...
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