Book review: 'Compass Rose' by John Casey

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Compass Rose

A Novel

John Casey

Alfred A. Knopf: 362 pp., $27.95

John Casey's National Book Award-winning 1989 novel, "Spartina," told the story of Dick Pierce, a small-time fisherman in South County, R.I., who is buoyed by big dreams and plagued with big problems. His biggest dream is to finish building his boat — the Spartina of the title — and so become a successful independent fisherman. His problems arise, largely, from his struggles to finish the boat: There is never enough time, never enough money, and, of course, there are those pesky hurricanes to deal with. But being a middle-aged man engaged in a traditional occupation, he has other problems, too: self-doubt, the frustration of feeling displaced by the modern world, and of course, the complications of infidelity. For Dick is a man with three loves: his boat, his wife, May … and his mistress, Elsie Buttrick.

In "Compass Rose," which picks up very soon after where "Spartina" left off, Casey shifts his attention from the solitary man at sea to the social lives of women on land. Dick and Elsie have ended their affair, but given that Elsie has given birth to Dick's daughter, Rose, it would be somewhat misleading to say that they are no longer involved. Indeed, in a community as small and tightly knit as South County, every person's life is involved in one way or another with everyone else's. These entanglements are not always comfortable, of course. May, for instance, must constantly face the prospect of running into her husband's free-spirited former lover. Indeed, merely hearing about Elsie's escapades puts May into a bit of a lather: "Elsie should know to keep to herself, not go prancing around as if she was free as air.… If there wasn't a baby, she and Elsie could have been ghosts to each other, but there was no pretending away flesh and blood."

"If there wasn't a baby": But there is, and Rose proves to be the book's center of gravity, pulling together the various strands of people's lives and forcing them to acknowledge, interact with and learn to tolerate one another. The male characters in the book — pale presences, most of them — tend to avoid much of this entanglement: They are nearly always offstage and away, frequently at sea (literally as well as figuratively). But life goes on without them, as May reminds Dick: "You think everybody's life stops when you go to sea? Mine doesn't. I don't disappear. Elsie doesn't disappear. Your daughter doesn't disappear. Elsie and Rose don't just stay up in that little house."

Given the complications of life on land, one can understand Dick's longing for the purity and isolation of the ocean: It is a close cousin to May's wish that people could be "ghosts to each other," that one could "pretend away flesh and blood." But as May points out, life does not stop, whether one is at home or voyaging. "Compass Rose" covers a span of several eventful years: There are shootings, medical emergencies, the sinking of a ship, a number of romantic couplings and a property dispute involving a rather questionable application of eminent domain. Yet the book feels somewhat plotless: These events happen in the way that things happen not in novels but in life, in a haphazard, somewhat desultory manner that doesn't necessarily add up to or mean anything. The drama inheres not in the major events but in the simple fact of people growing older, and in the thoughts and perceptions of the characters as presented in Casey's insightful prose.

Tracking the progress of time through the novel is often a challenge. Scenes frequently begin with dialogue or the briefest of descriptions: We are often not aware, when they start, of where the characters are, who is speaking and to whom, or how much time has passed since the previous scene. The effect of this is both to tie the reader's consciousness very tightly to the immediate thoughts and sensations of the characters, and also to disorient us in a way that approximates the experience of having newly arrived in a community where everyone but you is aware of the history and knows the score. As Phoebe Fitzgerald, herself a relatively new arrival in South County, complains, "It's as if there are things you have to know but that nobody tells you.… Around here it's as if everyone already knows what they need to know, and what's the point of talking about it."

Such a strategy could easily have gone wrong, but Casey's control over the narrative is assured. He is also a gifted creator of characters; most of the main female characters, Elsie Buttrick in particular, create vivid impressions that linger for some time. And the book contains some truly splendid lyrical passages. Though typical readers will feel like outsiders at the beginning, by the end of the book they may well feel as if they themselves had spent several years living in South County. And many such readers, I predict, will be reluctant to leave.

Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2006.

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