Our town

In this follow-up to ‘Spartina,’ John Casey charts the tangled histories and relationships in a small Rhode Island community

The novel takes places in a fictional area along the Rhode Island coast, west of Narragansett Bay. The novel takes places in a fictional area along the Rhode Island coast, west of Narragansett Bay. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff/ File 2009)
By Matthew Peters
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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Near the end of John Casey’s 1989 National Book Award-winning novel, “Spartina,’’ Dick Pierce, an embattled, blunt fisherman who is having an affair with Elsie Buttrick, a Natural Resources warden, reflects on the interrelatedness of the people of the Rhode Island community in which he lives: “they all got mixed up,’’ he thinks; yet, “they stayed themselves.’’ It is one of his characteristically terse and quizzical thoughts, and it well describes the way in which Casey’s characters are felt to be at once reluctantly receptive to new experience and obdurately unchanging.

Casey’s new novel, “Compass Rose,’’ continues the narrative of “Spartina’’ but switches its attention from Dick to Elsie, who at the beginning of the book has recently given birth to Rose, Dick’s child. Elsie lives near Dick, who has remained with his wife and two teenage boys. He continues to eke out a precarious living as a fisherman; his house is threatened by the acquisitive instincts of Jack Aldrich, a property developer, who is gradually buying up everything in the area. Elsie is struggling to continue in her arduous profession while raising a child whose parentage is known to the whole community — something that is inevitable in a region whose inhabitants’ lives are so densely “mixed up’’ through familial and professional ties.

Much of the enjoyment of this novel is derived from the unobtrusive skill with which Casey charts the entanglements, convergences, repulsions, and compromises of life in a close-knit community. It is at its best, however, in its examination of Elsie’s intelligent and sometimes impulsive, demanding, assertive but self-questioning nature.

Elsie is a more interesting reflector of her situations than is Dick, and not merely because she sees through the limitations of his “clipped Yankee’’ demeanor. In her efforts to raise Rose, in her relationships, and in the painful permanence of her love for Rose’s father, Elsie is aware of the gradual unsettling of her “balance’’ (an important motif in this novel). As she reflects near the end of the book: “She used to thrive on taking chances. She used to be good at keeping her balance. Now she was sprawling again.’’ Her interest to the reader comes in large measure from her lucid acknowledgement of and distress at this loss of balance.

Casey has always been interested in the difficulties with which people may truly know and understand themselves and each other. This is a common enough theme in fiction, but his early collection of short stories “Testimony and Demeanor’’ (1979) is notable for the self-conscious intelligence that its narrators apply to the question of how people may live with each other while, as one character puts it, “knowing only a fraction of the variables.’’

Casey’s treatment of this question in “Compass Rose’’ is more successful than that early work through its forging of a flexible and forceful narrative voice that is marvelously adept at conveying the reflections of an intelligent but not intellectual character such as Elsie.

Miss Perry, a retired schoolteacher and friend to Elsie, remarks that Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’’ misses “decades and decades of unrecorded life,’’ which she imagines to be “full of the enterprises of unlettered but resourceful people.’’ The tenaciously resourceful people who inhabit the world of “Compass Rose’’ are hardly unlettered, but they are less self-absorbed than the narrators of Casey’s short stories; and Casey’s later, less elaborate style wonderfully records their moments of curiosity about themselves, which (as Elsie’s is said to do) glitter “for an instant, like the sparkle of sand just after a wave recedes.’’ (Elsie is herself hostile to sustained self-absorption in other people; she judges it leads to a pallid form of “shrewdness.’’)

As Rose grows older, Elsie’s feelings both for her daughter and for Dick become more complex through her perception of Rose and Dick’s growing closeness. As this takes place, developer Aldrich’s encroachment on the lives of the inhabitants of the town becomes more intense. The lives and “mixed up’’ relations of these other characters are well drawn by the fluidity of Casey’s free, indirect style and also by pungent and often witty dialogue.

The strongest impression left on the reader, however, is how stubbornly the characters remain themselves even as they are inescapably drawn into each others’ lives. For all her poignant lucidity, Elsie’s greatest freedom is felt when she walks alone in the natural world where she is sometimes “released from figuring things out, from knowing or not knowing, and she felt herself displaced by a wordless humming alertness beyond well-being.’’ Perhaps the greatest achievement of Casey’s unadorned, clear, and flexible writing is its setting these rare moments of individual displacement and transcendence within a narrative that dramatically relates the complex procedures of human relations both public and intimate.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic who lives in Cambridge, England. He can be reached at

By John Casey
Knopf, 345 pp., $27.95