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Maine attraction

There is better crime fiction being written

Artillery Row Books

For many readers, Maine lives in the literary imagination as one of two things: the site of Stephen King’s rabid dogs, killer clowns and telekinetic teenagers, or the sleepy home of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. With his debut novel, The Midcoast, Adam White looks to leave an equally indelible impression of the state — and does. It is the book’s hackneyed story of a family’s rise and fall that lets it down.

The Midcoast: a novel, Adam White (Random House, $27.00)

“The Midcoast” refers to a touristy stretch of seaboard in southern Maine. Touristy now, anyway. Among the new arrivals is high school teacher Andrew, who grew up on the Midcoast but hasn’t been back since college. Now he returns — lured there, humiliatingly, by the “lower cost of living” and the promise of “free babysitting” from his children’s grandparents. It’s a humiliation deepened by his reunion with Ed Thatch. 

When Andrew knew him — as teenagers working on the Thatches’ lobster farm — Ed was “already strong”, able to “toss ninety-pound crates around the dock the way I could throw baskets of dirty laundry downstairs to the basement”. In this respect, the lobsterman hasn’t changed a bit in thirty years. What has changed are Ed’s circumstances. “I thought you said they don’t come from much,” queries Andrew’s wife Maeve at the first of the Gatsby-esque parties they attend. “They don’t,” replies Andrew.

Yet the evidence is undeniable: the Thatches have money now. And pretensions. The novel starts at a lacrosse party, no less. As Andrew steers his kids “between the Thatches’ garage (formerly a farmhouse) and the house (formerly a barn) and … onto the backyard (really a long shimmering meadow that humped down to the river over a series of small hills like an off-season ski slope) it became clear that Ed had taken the concept of ‘pre-game reception’ in a whole new direction”. The parentheses tell all. 

All except for one thing: where is the money coming from? According to Ed, it’s from “the rising price of lobster and his willingness to work long hours”. However, this sits uneasily with Andrew, whose suspicions are confirmed, first, when he discovers pictures of burnt bodies on Ed’s coffee table and, second, when he looks up from the lacrosse to see “a line of state police cruisers burst from the woods, lighting the fog blue, then red, then blue”. Thus ends the prologue. 

What follows are the decades leading up to this moment, as seen from the perspectives of the four core Thatches: Ed, his wife Steph and, once they are old enough, their children EJ and Allie. Andrew, from this point, settles into a supporting role, reappearing only to remind us that the events described are reconstructions and that we have his sleuthing to thank for them.

We are not always grateful. While White proves himself an excellent ventriloquist of middle age, he is weak on adolescence. EJ’s first experience with drugs is particularly cringeworthy: “EJ’s heart was no longer a heart. It was an epileptic squid shimmying down every one of his limbs”. Anne Tyler, to whose family sagas The Midcoast could charitably be compared, is writing better teenagers in her eighties. 

It’s a shame these observations come served on such a generic platter

There is lots of better crime fiction being written, too. The question of how Ed has made his money, for instance, receives an answer so clichéd I would bore you by spoiling it. The same goes for why Ed is doing what he’s doing. Which is unfortunate, because the novel’s few moments of action indicate that White has the makings of a very good thriller writer. His characters’ adrenaline invigorates his prose: “The breath snagged, but he tried again and continued to try until the breaths finally stretched down and filled his chest, his heart rate slowing to a manageable pounding”.

That we get so little of this suggests that White’s concerns are elsewhere: place is his real passion. He is especially brilliant on weather (never an easy thing to get right): “It was the type of ghostly dusk that comes to the Midcoast every spring, a swirl of smoke and light, the river air at once warm and chilling, weather that can fill the sky with a sense of change”. It’s the precision of that adjective “chilling” — rather than the obvious “chilly” — that impresses here; the authority of “every”. White clearly knows his terrain. 

He also knows its people, and wrings some good social comedy from the interactions of the aspirant Thatches and “the old-money New Englanders” buying second homes in the area. It’s just a shame these observations come served on such a generic platter: White’s lack of interest in writing thrillers is palpable. Let’s hope his next book is about characters on the right side of the law.

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