Gloucester novelist offers salty folks and plight of plastic-filled ocean

JoeAnn Hart’s new novel Float begins with her main character struggling on a beach, trying to save a wounded seagull. The bird is caught in a piece of plastic. Man and nature struggle throughout this quirky seaside tale of the underdog.  Ashland Creek Press chose to publish her book because of their mission to find books “that foster an appreciation for nature, the animal kingdom and for the ways in which we all connect.”Hart’s novel certainly fits that criteria.Fishermen, artists, cooks, therapists and the common  person on the street all have an extraordinary vocabulary for environmental issues. Hart says this is because, on a working waterfront, clean water is first and foremost on everyone’s minds.“Environmentalism isn’t an elitist thing in a fishing community because it’s everyone’s business.”

If Hart’s fictional fishing community of Port Ellery, Maine sounds like Gloucester’s very inlets and coves that’s because Hart has lived in Gloucester since 1979. The salty characters of Port Ellery live in the familiar surroundings of overdevelopment, the summer people versus the year rounders, experimental artists and the ancillary industries all tied to the success or failure of the fishing. The whole town smells of the salty Atlantic and the deep fat fryer. No doubt those who attend her upcoming launch party and public readings will perk their ears for a sign of their doppelgänger. The book launches with a cocktail party Feb. 15th at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, followed by readings at the The Book Store on Main Street in downtown Gloucester on Feb. 28 and at Toad Hall Bookstore in Rockport on March 12.

Hart says she had no choice but to move the novel to coastal Maine so that those in Gloucester wouldn’t “crawl all over the book,” hunting inaccuracies.  In the fictional  Maine locale, Duncan Leland is having trouble saving his business, his marriage and his sense of self, questioning how he ever left New York City to come back and run the family business of turning fish waste to fertilizer. (The business is based on Neptune’s Harvest in Gloucester, which does exactly the same thing.) Duncan’s mother and brother have some kind of ongoing sea obsessed madness. His wife won’t speak to him since the fertility attempts didn’t go so well. And we find ourselves pulling for Duncan, even though he can’t quite keep from publically mucking it up again and again.

Of Hart’s last book, Addled, Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Hart does an admirable job of developing memorable flawed characters and letting them loose in an absurd situation.”

The same is true of this novel. Absurdity runs rampant on every page. Duncan is made to feel alone when he spies young lovers at the clam shack, dipping fried oysters in tartar sauce and feeding one another amid an environmentalist and a fisherman in a shouting match over regulations. Here, the characters also eat creative, lethal sounding concoctions made from eel and squid.

On the floor of Duncan’s mother’s house is a painted map of the harbor by the most famous artist ever to come out of Port Ellery, where she and his brother have created a never ending sailing race. Searching for something in the den, one is likely to come upon Colonial deeds and any assortment of things a museum would love to nab. The octagonal house where Duncan’s mother lives is based on one Hart saw on the coast of Maine. (The author also writes style stories for The Boston Globe magazine.) She chose this style because was also thinking of the word “octopus”  and how the house is strangling the family in the book. Hart just so happens to live in her husband’s family’s home of three generations.

“I walked in on generations of another family’s life,” she says. “I didn’t get to buy furniture. It was simply here.”

The book’s characters have names like Annuncia, Josefa, Beaky and Slocum and wear crazy outfits and long beards, carry pet ferrets and mild threats of murder. A pregnant, newly widowed woman rows her dory around the harbor, searching for her husband’s body parts, which wash up here and there, following a mysterious accident. Duncan makes a deal to save his business that causes him to fret about the morals of his new partner. These characters’ entrance into the 21st century seems to be one that is kicking and screaming, yet the book is set in the absolute now with I-pod playlists, Youtube videos and shiny Mini Coopers.

“I”m a  believer is pushing things to the extreme,” says Hart, who grew up in the Bronx. “Often you don’t know what the middle is. You don’t know what normal is until you see abnormal. Normal is too normal. I also have a very high tolerance for people who are different. I often don’t see that someone is crazy. They seem fine to me. Eventually I catch on. I’m not someone who passes judgement on someone’s mental state. Gloucester’s an island. On isolated communities, people get used to their own normal.”

At some point we find ourselves feeling seasick at all the salty metaphors and sailing terms, but sticking with it, shake our heads and dive back in, finding it’s charming good fun. When a woman overhears a conversation on a porch, she interrupts, “dipping her oar in,” to comment on the number of fish in the sea. Remunerating on his troubles, Duncan thinks “…Let Seacrest’s sink or swim or its own. He could not play God; he could not part the sea.”

“Shall we voyage off menu today?” a customer says to a chef, who replies, “As the fish yearns for lemon juice and clams dream of batter, I go to my stove!”

While writing the book, Hart was never far from a very thick volume: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. This way she could have full access to the whole separate language of fascinating marine terminology.

Though the language of the sea is quite old, the marine pollution issue told here is not. Plastic bottles and cling wrap came into fashion about the same time as our throw away culture.  This fun read will certainly leave you with a far better knowledge of the issue of toxic plastics in  the ocean. A stunt pulling video artist makes an installation out of a net ball of garbage like fishing nets and other plastic the size of a whale. This came from one of the artists Hart discovered,  Pam Longobardi, who in her Drifters Project has worked from Hawaii to Greece, pulling  plastic garbage  from sea caves and off beaches to create installations.

“It doesn’t just kill sea animals,” says Hart. “It’s a toxic substance that never goes anywhere ever. It breaks down into smaller pieces and is eaten by fishes. Fishermen are catching fish who have testicles in their ovaries and we’re eating all of this. We’re ingesting all of these endocrine disruptors and then people are having all of these fertility issues.”

The more she researched, the more alarmed she became, says Hart, and before she knew it sea plastics became the story to move the plot along. The woman who designed the book’s cover, Karen Ristuben, who is leading Rocky Neck’s new growth, also leads a 45-minute educational presentation on marine plastic pollution and public health called Just One Word, taken from the famous line about plastics from the movie The Graduate. She states on her website that her presentation addresses the issue through lenses of marine science, economics, politics and our consumer culture.

Think of the higher tides reaching for our landfills. Think Hurricane Sandy and how many water bottles it grabbed. Whatever happened to glass Pellegrino bottles, aluminium cans or a plain glass of water? It’s going to take a higher consciousness for people to stop producing so much waste that uses an enormous amount of energy to to be recycled and winds up in landfills anyway, says Hart, adding that maybe her readers will stoop to pick up a bottle from the beach.

Unfortunately, much of the ocean’s plastics come right from boats, says Hart,  from fishing lines, nets and fishing bins that get washed away. “Many countries still direct dump into the ocean. Fishing captains say they can find their way out of China harbors by following the plastic garbage dumped by other boats.”

The book introduces an interesting concept of our main character and his friend discovering a new plastic made from jellyfish. When asked about it, Hart says, “People are making strides to make it with algae. It needs funding. Everybody has to stop using plastics. We’ve got to push this.”

Float took a year of notetaking to conceive and two years to write. The ending perhaps took the longest, as the wrapping up goes on for some time, answering questions and putting the characters right in the place the universe intended. Without giving too much away, for Duncan, he finally gets on the water and sees from a new perspective the beach where his recent adventure started. All dramas end in tragedy and all comedies in a marriage, or least something that resembles marriage, Hart clarifies. The writer is now working on short stories, a short play and her journalism. She says she’ll clear the deck of other ideas before diving into another novel. It’s nice to imagine her there in the family home, writing away.

The familiar, surreal and, yes, absurd situations in her book only remind us that life really can be stranger and more magical than fiction in these special seaside places. Occasionally Duncan enjoys, for just a moment, the feeling of his worries easing “as if he were floating above his earthly troubles.” But just as the sea breeze starts to revive his hope, something bad jars him into the reality of his situation.

However, we know from a very early moment that it’s a misunderstanding that has Duncan and his wife Cora apart and we root for him to set things right. This is perhaps because we know Duncan, but certainly because of Hart’s warm-hearted storytelling that propels us to care, to hope and to inhabit her flawed, beautiful watery world.

Dinah Cardin is founder and Editor-in-Chief of North Shore Art*Throb.


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One Response to “Gloucester novelist offers salty folks and plight of plastic-filled ocean”

  1. Gordon Baird says:

    Read this amazing book twice – even more fun the second time through. Hart’s swirling world of superstorms and oceans choked with plastic are rivaled by her wonderfully flawed, catostrophically funny characters. Too real for words, except her words, of course . . . and what an ending. Thanks for including this, Art Throb. Now she’s a Hart Throb.

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