Any discussion of candidates for the title Fiction Laureate of Maine will quickly conjure the usual subjects: Stephen King, Elizabeth Strout, Carolyn Chute, Rick Russo. All have carved out a unique niche in our literary landscape. But when it comes to capturing the ethos of the people and culture of the Pine Tree State, perhaps no one nails it like author Jim Nichols.
Nichols’ latest novel, Closer All the Time (Islandport Press), is a lovingly rendered series of connected vignettes centered on the fictional coastal community of Baxter. Though the author’s insights clearly mark him as a member of the clan, he does not shy away from depicting the dark underside of small-town life in Maine: the petty feuds that endure for generations, the xenophobia masquerading as rugged individualism, the temptation to escape the tedium of a long winter with a bottle of coffee brandy, and the tensions between “natives” and newly arrived people “from away,” who have lots of money and little sense of the way things have always been done.
One of the first stories — all of which are named after the character at the heart of the action — is “Early,” about a recent widower struggling to extricate himself from the emotional void opened when his beloved Evangeline passes away. Early (so named for his propensity to be the first one out on the flats each morning) rouses himself to explore some off-limits clamming grounds, legality be damned.
Running into a younger acquaintance, Johnny Lunden, the two start rhythmically raking the flats, and it is here, in his description of the work, that Nichols’ prowess is on full display. I have never raked a clam flat in my life, but there is an undeniable verisimilitude to Nichols’ description that will put any reader right beside the two men, feeling the adrenaline rush of doing something outside the bounds of the law. Of course, things do not go as planned. Chased by the clam cops, Early and Johnny have to jettison their catch and barely escape being caught. But afterward, it’s clear that Early has finally begun to lift himself out of the grief and depression that had been threatening to swallow his life.
If these interwoven tales have a main character, it’s Johnny, a combat veteran trying to readjust to civilian life. Nichols begins the book with a story of Johnny succumbing to the lure of “just one more drink,” because “Sarah was working at the Realty, the boys wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours, and it would be rude to just walk out.” This also ends badly, and in the final story Johnny is getting ready to leave rehab. Sarah is long gone and he hasn’t seen his son in years, but despite the despair on the surface, Johnny is bemused and hopeful. “He had always thought that one day he would get fed up and quit, and when they sentenced him to the VA, he figured the time had come. He’d go through the program and get it started, and once he got out he’d find a way to hang on.”
In Nichols’ telling, a resident of Baxter never has to hang on alone. All that’s necessary to rouse the network of family and friends is to swallow one’s pride.
These beautiful stories follow a chronological progression, focusing first upon the youth of the town, then the tender infatuations of adolescence and the heartbreak and tribulations of adult life. The soul of the book is Baxter, a place where the locals scrape and struggle and try to understand why. Nichols makes it clear that despite the travails and confusion, there is always a tendril of hope that connects back to the community.
— Bill Lundgren