Good Reads: ‘Spartina’ by John Casey

Feeling middle-aged, wistful and disenchanted, or moving in those directions? Then you may like to read Spartina by John Casey (born 1939) for a bit of commiseration and solace. The book won Casey the 1989 National Book Award.

On the surface, Spartina is a simple tale of a man, his boat, and a storm. The protagonist, Dick Pierce is always at sea, even on land. Now middle-aged, all he has is a lithe but inadequate skiff, a supply of lobster pots, a growing temper, a mortgage, and an unsteady marriage. He has worked the big fishing boats off the Rhode Island coast – he has even helped build a couple of them. If he could just finish the 50-foot boat he has half built in his backyard, he might just make the most of his strained circumstances, like the marsh grass he admires:

Dick loved the salt marsh. Under the spartina there was black earth richer than any farmland, but useless to farmers on account of the salt. Only the spartina thrived in the salt flood, shut themselves against the salt but drank the water. Smart grass. If he ever got his boat built he might just call her Spartina.

Spartina is of course, more than a tale of man, boat, and storm. That description only partially evokes the texture of the novel and the tempests its protagonist ride out. Casey deftly conjures both the manual work and the metaphorical romance of taking to sea in language that swims easily in both mundane and poetic waters, while the “weather” through which Dick must pass on his journey toward self-discovery takes several shapes, confronting him in the form of tourists taking over the Narragansett shore, the undercurrents of class and money that trail disappointment in their wake, the exhilaration and disruption of infidelity, and the last but not least, the physical terror of a hurricane.

Spartina, ultimately, is a clasic tale of a solitary hero fighting to hold fast to a dream in a disenchanted, changing world. There are frequent comparisons with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but Casey’s tale is especially notable for setting its protagonist’s quest for private nobility within the confines of a perfectly ordinary life. One thing is clear, as a Time magazine reviewer noted, “They do not make novels like this very much anymore.”

Author of Spartina, John Casey, in a 2010 photo.

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