An Ocean in Iowa
By Peter Hedges
248 pp., $22.95
Scotty Ocean's mother gives her sensitive son the perfect gift for his seventh birthday - a microscope "for studying the tiniest movements of life."
Perhaps even more apt is the present from classmate Tom Conway - a black plastic orb with a red fuse called the Time Bomb. A circle forms, the windup ticker is quickly passed around, and B-O-O-M! - explodes in Scotty's hands. "Mom! I was blown to bits," he cries out playfully while flailing on the ground.
So begins "An Ocean in Iowa," Peter Hedges' sweet-and-sour account of a pivotal year in the life of a dreamy, self-absorbed child whose comfortable world is rocked when the person he most adores packs her bags, hops into her yellow convertible, and leaves her puzzled family behind. With no one to turn to for solace, Scotty embarks on a mission to outsmart his shattered heart with a series of often-amusing but frequently wrenching survival tactics.
It is West Glen, Iowa, and his mother is a struggling modern artist caught in the confines of the1969 midwest. Instead of baking cookies and polishing floors like her counterparts in the community, Joan Ocean spends hours molding clay and pushing around paintbrushes in her studio. Rather than shaping cookie-cutter children, she encourages their individuality:
"While other children filled in their coloring books, getting praise for staying in between the lines, the Ocean kids could be found painting their driveway, no lines or requirements. 'Just paint,' Joan would shout ... and turn them loose.... On an average summer day all three Ocean children would be busy creating."
Joan is also Scotty's best friend. She takes him on high-speed rides over bumpy roads and lets him suck up his spaghetti noodles one-at-a-time. They spend hours together painting in her studio. And when he tires of her world, he moves outside to study the sidewalk ants or pretends he's Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon.
But Joan tips the bottle too much. She feels trapped in a loveless marriage to Scotty's father, Judge Ocean - a guardian of societal rules, tradition, and restriction. He is a man for whom the perfect Christmas gift is a razor because "a simple hug felt like a bed of nails being pressed to his face. Anything to soften the Judge's face," Scotty concludes.
His parents' mismatch presents a dilemma for Scotty, who identifies with his free-spirited mother but is forced to conform to the judge's regimented ways when his mother leaves.
He blames himself for his mother's departure and tries to win her back by making a mental list, "indelibly scrawling it onto his heart," of how to be a good boy. When that fails, he searches for a new mother. Then he draws inward, imagining himself living underwater in a submarine that only surfaces for peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
His feelings leap out in quirky and often inappropriate ways.
"An Ocean in Iowa" is a study in the wrenching effects of divorce and separation through the eyes of a child riding the tides of his emotions. We come to understand his alienation in 1969 middle-America, where such separation was a rarity. "It was as if the rest of the world were speaking another language," Hedges writes.
Poignantly, Scotty's internal smoke signals go unnoticed.
"Life had a way of surprising," Scotty concludes one day. And so does Hedges' latest novel. The reader is treated to a wonderful smorgasbord of detail with a pageantry of eccentric characters filling their plates.
And despite the dark circumstances, Hedges manages to make his novel a delightful romp through the age of seven with an endearing character who revels in life's smallest details.
* Cynthia Hanson is the mother of two small boys.