Churning Up a Coastal Town's Demons


"What did it feel like to die this way?" we're asked to imagine at the beginning. "They said her hair was encrusted with seaweed and crabs. . . . They say she must have struggled to free herself, that as she grabbed at the grass her efforts only increased the suction of the mud. They still call it an accidental death."

Welcome to Saltash, Mass., a small town made instantly smaller by local elections. David Green just ran for selectman against a schoolteacher set up by town boss Johnny Lynch. Green was recruited by Lynch's foes and had an affair with the wife of Lynch's longtime nemesis. But that was before he met Crystal Sinclair.

Sex and politics, as we know, are a combustible mix. Find them in a small town and you have the makings of a firestorm. Place them in a novel and you have the makings of a cliche. It's all a matter of how you control the burn, and Marge Piercy and Ira Wood know how to play with fire.

Wood, in previous novels, proved himself a deft, if sometimes uneven, storyteller, and Piercy, in her poems and novels, is an impassioned, if sometimes rhetorical, stylist. In "Storm Tide," they've dropped all the sometimes-es and delivered a confident page-burner.

Green and Lynch run into each other over the dike that Lynch built 30 years ago to keep back the tides and drain the land, turning a shellfish field into a housing tract. Its opponents want part of the estuary restored; Lynch wants more homes. Green's undecided, and Piercy and Wood wisely show that politics, no matter the slant or civility, do nothing to ease fear and fear sharpens the acrimony.

A Jew in a WASPs' nest, Green's moment of fame was as the Sandy Koufax of the local high school baseball team. Recruited by the Cubs, he was let go after a disappointing round in the minors. At 32, broke, divorced and estranged from his son, David returned to Saltash, a little adrift.

Old dreams also haunt Lynch. Gone are the days when his authority went unquestioned, when respect and consent were the price for a cord of wood or a driveway plowed to your door, and he blames Gordon Stone for devaluing his stock.

Stone lives apart from the town and is dying of lung cancer. His fourth wife, Judith Silver, is half his age, and together they enlist David in their cause--and a little more. At first, David's wary of consensual adultery, but Piercy and Wood make an case for it.

"We do what we want," Judith explains. "Everybody's honest. Nobody gets hurt. What is the problem?" The question's smartly drawn, coming from a woman who loves her husband, a man worried about her future when he's gone.

But the entanglement drives David into the arms of Crystal Sinclair, prodigal daughter of Saltash, home now with her 8-year-old son and more baggage than she can carry. "I'm your anything girl," she eagerly tells David.

Sex is played like a weapon in "Storm Tide," and David's a perfect target. A pawn in Crystal's bed, he forgets Judith and throws any doubt into the campaign, and by the time the good people of Saltash chose their selectman, Piercy and Wood have turned the town inside out. On the night of Rosh Hashanah, a storm tide rises, and the next day, a body is found in the marsh. The death is ruled accidental, but everyone played a role in this tragedy.

What threatens to go adrift in "Storm Tide" is deftly weighted to the histories that Piercy and Wood provide their characters. Few steps are mistaken. Crystal's desperation becomes the story of a mother, frightened for her son, struggling to hold on to a world that threatens to wash away. And a simplistic dialectic--the debate over the dike--grows into a picture of economic uncertainty and material doubt.

In an afterword, Piercy and Wood, who are married, describe the experience writing "Storm Tide." Collaboration, they tell us, "requires being able to detach from your own preconceptions and actually listen to the other person's motives." It is a process that makes "Storm Tide" a satisfying blend of sex and politics. If only real life were so honestly realized.

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