'Compass Rose': John Casey's sequel to the 'Spartina' story
A review of John Casey's new novel "Compass Rose," which takes up where his National Book Award-winning "Spartina" left off.
Special to The Seattle Times
by John Casey
Knopf, 384 pp., $27.95
In 1989, John Casey won the National Book Award for "Spartina," the story of a man, his boat, a hurricane and a great deal more. The long silence since then has now been amply filled with the arrival of "Compass Rose." There is a reason why it takes John Casey more than 20 years to bring forth a new novel: He thinks about it. It is in that distillation of his thoughts and refinement of his style that the story is brought to vibrant life.
A compass rose is a figure on a map used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions; something to help us find our way. The ever-present sea, part sustainer, part destroyer, permeates both of Casey's books: its ferocious possibilities, its prodigious supply of livelihood and, for lifelong shore dwellers, its refuge from any shoreside storm, inside or outside oneself.
In "Spartina," Dick Pierce, a commercial fisherman along the shores of Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, chafes against the people he works for and becomes ever more determined to finish the 50-foot fishing boat, called Spartina, languishing unfinished in his back yard. He needs money to finish her, so that he can go crabbing in deep water and improve his family's fortunes. At story's end, Pierce has taken a foolish risk to get the money, fallen into an adulterous affair that results in the birth of a child, finished the boat and outlasted a hurricane.
"Compass Rose" takes up precisely where "Spartina" ended. May, Dick's wife, is sitting in the bleachers watching their teenage sons, Charley and Tom, play baseball, when Elsie Buttrick walks by. Elsie is the mother of Dick's child, a baby girl named Rose, born of an affair that Dick has ended. Elsie, ever the rebel, has turned away from her family's money, more comfortable donning her Natural Resources Officer uniform and tramping around looking for poachers. Dick Pierce is the love of her life, the man she never lost sight of through many romances. He is much older than she and when the time is right for Elsie, he doesn't stand a chance. Matters are complicated by the fact that Elsie and the Pierces are near neighbors and, as in all small towns, there are no secrets.
Casey can write the thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams of women, be they wives, mothers, daughters or lovers, better than anyone since Reynolds Price wrote "Kate Vaiden." Elsie is a better mistress than she is a mother. After a rather nasty argument with Rose, Elsie muses: "Things wouldn't be like this if I loved Rose enough." It takes three women to mother Rose, two of them sometimes more eager for the job than Elsie. Mary, Elsie's housemate, works at a restaurant and takes care of Rose during her time off; but the most unlikely mother of the three is May herself, who insists that this baby, toddler, child, young woman is her sons' sister and she will be in their lives, and May in hers.
Rose is a lovable drama queen, unwilling to turn a blind eye to her mother's failings and quite willing to enumerate them. Despite her diva tendencies, she is the well-loved adopted daughter of many of the townspeople and the one who keeps the crotchety Elsie connected to the town and everyone in it. Through property hassles, the near-destruction of the Pierce home, and his discomfiture watching May with Rose, Dick still finds respite at sea, but in "Compass Rose," he is moving closer to shore.