Some writers are stylists. Some are philosophers. Some are storytellers. Crash Barry is a storyteller. And a good one. Here are the attributes I think a good storyteller will possess: a balanced ear for dialogue, so that when words are spoken in the novel, they sound just right; a sense of pace, such that a story moves nicely along; an empathy for character (that is, the writer has the capacity to make the reader care for and about the characters); and, lastly, a compelling yarn, ideally introducing the reader to a world at once both strange and exciting. The author of this surprising little novel, Sex, Drugs & Blueberries, seems quite capable of flexing all those muscles.
Sex, Drugs & Blueberries is the story of a blueberry harvest one recent summer Down East. A youngish, happily married man with the unlikely name Ben Franklin needs money. He leaves his loving wife, Monica, behind on Goose Island and finds work on a blueberry farm on the mainland. It is to be a three week gig. They can’t afford the expense of driving back and forth, so Ben packs his camping gear and sets up his tent in the rural backyard of fellow berry-picker Richard. And then the fun begins.
There is a widely held, romanticized view of Maine. It comes from the paintings of Winslow Homer, from the stories of Bert and I, from the commerce of L.L. Bean and the essays of E.B. White. Maine has lighthouses and gulls and lobsters and a great rocky coast. Maine is, as the billboard says, “the way life should be.” All that is well and good, and for some people of the Pine Tree State, that is their experience. But for many more, the rural and remote state of Maine represents struggle, challenge, poverty and want. Drugs are prevalent, crime is on the rise, incomes are falling — assuming there is an income. This is the world Barry’s characters inhabit.
Our man Ben is a likable guy. He tries to be a good man, to do the right thing. He has dreams and he hasn’t yet given up on them. He has a wife he loves. But he has, too, the anatomy of a man and is subject to the occasional transference of the cognitive faculties to an appendage other than the one on his shoulders. (“My wife was my lover. I was devoted to her forever, but in a quick instant, I violated my vow to be true.”) Granted, even good men might have a bad habit or two. Ben smokes weed, a lot of it. And he has had a problem with pills. But doggone it, we’re pulling for him, ’cause he’s trying hard to be good. And no one else in the novel seems to be. Ben is written with sympathy, rendering him flawed, yet earnest.
Other characters include the aforementioned Richard, known to some as Little Dick, and his hot short-shorts-wearing sister, Buffy, mother of five-year old Captain. Most interesting is Geneesh, an off-the-reservation Indian entrepreneur/sage, a man not to be messed with, unless your name is Savannah or Missy, the two hotties who provide him with companionship and, let us say, intellectual stimulation.
Geneesh is the hub from which dubious spokes radiate, including pills, weed, porn, sex, blackmail and guns. Yet, somehow, we like this guy. He’s larger than life and seems, until the very end, forever in control, a worthy attribute indeed. He is presented as a gentle brown giant, albeit with a dark side. Ben, through an entirely plausible and entertaining series of events, is drawn into Geneesh’s circle. If Geneesh represents control, Ben is a bending reed. Ben cannot resist temptation, struggles against it, promises to be good, but folds, time and again. For poor Ben, Geneesh’s world is temptation made manifest, subjecting him to a cycle of weakness, regret and resolution.
I like this book. I like strong writing that challenges cliché, and Maine is nothing if not cliché-ridden. That said, there were times I worried the author was losing control. Specifically, when he writes about sex — he does it well, which is not easy. I wondered at times if the narration might not have been stronger with less libido. Too, Barry’s women don’t stray far from stereotype; the exceptions being Ben’s wife, Monica, who is an undeveloped character, and Savannah, a surprising scholar-groupie with intellectual aspirations.
But these are minor gripes. The story is well told and revealing. Barry (a columnist for The Bollard) is a gatecrasher. He’s the guy at the party who somehow gets past the bouncer, steals the limelight, and surprises everyone by winning hearts and souls with tales of adventure and daring. Which is precisely what he’s done here.
— Doug Bruns
For more about the book and its author, visit crashbarry.com.