Like Ireland in the past two hundred years, and Concord in the mid-19th century, the Vineyard is known for incubating writers. Some of them set their stories right here on the Island. The most illuminating to come down the pike in a long time — perhaps the most illuminating ever — is The Mud of the Place, by Susanna J. Sturgis, published by Speed-of-C Productions, $19.99.
Imagine making friends with five of the smartest, funniest, most ruggedly individualist people on the Vineyard, then following them through a chain of startling events — part mystery, part life drama — all the while touring the nooks and crannies of this rock and seeing it anew through Ms. Sturgis’s discerning eye. For instance, a local newspaper reporter muses, “Martha’s Vineyard was like that: tectonic plates were always shifting under the terra apparently firma you walked on, reminding you that no matter how much you found out, you didn’t necessarily know a damn thing. An Islander might have exactly the information you were looking for, but would they ever tell you? They would not — not unless you phrased your question in precisely the right way, in which case they couldn’t avoid answering without becoming, by their own elevated but esoteric standards, liars. Leslie had never lived in a place where everyone knew everything but the truth was so hard to pin down.”
Leslie is a reporter for an Island newspaper called the Chronicle which, coincidentally, sits on the plot of ground occupied by the real-life MV Times (where, also coincidentally, Ms. Sturgis worked as editor of the calendar section in the 1990s.) Leslie lives in a wing of her parent’s north shore summer house, in full flight from the triumphs expected of her as the daughter of a famous journalist dad.
Flight from expectations haunts the other characters as well: Shannon lives in exile from a promising artist’s career, as manifested by the padlock she placed years before across her studio door. She’s a proud lesbian living on a family-über-alles island where two girlfriends holding hands is as rare a sight as purple cows. Still, she doesn’t hide her romantic preferences, and lives in exasperation of those who do, such as . . .
Jay is an Island native who sallied off to college to become a social worker, a career he pursued brilliantly in the mean streets of Worcester. But when an opportunity arose back home to head up the youth services division of Community Services — oops! — Island Social Services — he brought everything back to the Vineyard. Well, everything except his identity as a gay individual, for fear of offending his morbidly traditional mother and his homophobic sister, who believes that gays and lesbians are bigger monsters than her alcoholic, abusive husband.
Giles, a newly discovered artist of astonishing abilities, is a fully realized homosexual, and he has painted a masterpiece of the love of his life, long gone but in the painting slumbering in Giles’s bed in the golden light of morning. Giles’s flight is from the possibility of ever hanging this particular work in a gallery out of respect for not outing the subject, who is thoroughly unready and opposed to this intimate debut. The subject, of course, is Jay.
And finally there is Meg, a cigarette-and-whisky-throated siren of a real estate agent, a little too free to mix business with pleasure, who may hold at least some of the keys to the main mystery ingredients of this novel: arson, attempted murder by shotgun at the side of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road, a sleazy bestselling novelist with possible larceny on his brain, wife-stalking hombres and, as the copy writers love to say, much, much more.
It’s astonishing how much texture, insight and lore Ms. Sturgis has packed into this 392-page novel (the author summered here starting in 1965 when her family bought an up Island pond-side cottage, and has lived here year-round since 1985). The major elements of the story — the Island art scene, the real estate explosion of the late 1990s, the widespread participation in and influence of AA, lesbians and gays, the world of the weekly, small-town newspaper, and social services — each is laid out for us as if the author spent a lifetime devoted to its pursuit.
This wealth of characters and venues is a page-turner. I spent an entire Sunday unable to leave the couch as I poured through this book, and yet the irony was that I had no sense of missing a single moment outside my windows, out there on the Island, because Ms. Sturgis introduced me to more facets of Vineyard living than I’ve come across in my own 18 years of residing here year-round.
Before I urge you to go out and buy this book, let me tell you from whom the title is borrowed: they are the words of Grace Paley’s: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of the place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”
The author of Carpool Diem, Nancy Star (5 Spot, Hachette Book Group, $13.99), lives with her husband and two teen daughters in New Jersey, and has recently purchased and refreshed a cottage in Huckleberry Hollow in Chilmark. Her delightful novel is set in pure mainstream suburbia, a trip down memory lane for many of our Island’s wash-ashores who moved here to escape the torments of the real world, all of them meticulously and hilariously delineated in Carpool Diem: corporate boardrooms, expensive life styles demanding two high-powered careers per married couple, 80-hour work weeks, au pairs made sinister with the run of the house, and Type A moms and dads pouring all their stress into running their kids’ soccer teams.
Ms. Star, formerly a movie executive, knows these crazy parallel universes inside and out, and shows a deft touch with characters, dialogue and fasten-your-seatbelt action. Our protagonist, Annie, is freshly and unfairly fired from her Xtreme exec job at a company that does something along the lines of organizing other companies. Annie now spends enough waking hours home to realize that her 12-year-old daughter, a soccer champ-in-the-making, is a sulky stranger, and her husband, frantically putting out fires in his brother’s travel company, purports to log a lot of work hours in Atlanta, and yet never seems to actually be in Atlanta.
Like Jane Austen’s Emma, Annie of Carpool Diem is not immediately likeable, but we trust the author to get us and her over this initial bad stretch of personality, which she does.
Vineyarders can read this book to remind themselves of why they live here and, in the meantime, Annie and her husband in the next saga, in our swiftly changing times, might both lose their positions, their house will be foreclosed upon, and they’ll move to Martha’s Vineyard where they can grow their own vegetables, and juggle eight scut-jobs instead of two careers. Their daughter can join a low-key soccer team and gripe about the absence of a mall.
The point being, life is grand wherever you are.