A perfect storm in the human heart

GRAVESEND LIGHT By David Payne Doubleday 382 pp., $24.95

Here's a book that forgot mother's advice to avoid talking about sex, politics, and religion. It even raises a few other taboos like spousal abuse, depression, abortion, homosexuality, and that most forbidden of all American topics: class.

Of course, there's no shortage of novels about controversial subjects, but in "Gravesend Light," David Payne has the nerve to place in his book intelligent people who talk, debate, and passionately disagree about these subjects.

If you don't belong to a book club, start one with this book. If you already have a reading group, stage a coup during that frustrating selection process at the end of each meeting. ("I don't know, what do you want to read?" "Is it in paperback?" "Which one is shortest?") This is a novel to disturb the deadly niceness that afflicts so many book clubs. A smart love story that will incite group wrestling.

The story opens on Little Roanoke, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the early 1980s. Joe Madden, an ethnographer, has returned home for a year-long study of this fragile fishing community as it struggles against new commercial, environmental, and social stresses.

It's a switch from his previous study of the exotic natives of Bali, but Joe peers at these fishermen, waitresses, and Christian fundamentalists with the same scientific objectivity. He's a friendly, but distant young man, chronically noncommittal, who hopes to enter these people's minds without disturbing the natural fauna and flora of their lives.

At the hospital clinic one day for treatment of a rash on his arm, Joe meets Day Shaughnessey, a witty, outspoken doctor who's come down from Yale to open a women's clinic. She's a good old-fashioned liberal who shares none of Joe's qualms about disturbing the quaint local culture. Her clinic provides birth and abortion services for which local women used to drive a hundred miles - or go without.

Both of them are doing well in this community, and even better after they fall in love and move in together. Joe is thrilled to win an excruciating job on a fishing boat that provides plenty of rich observation. Day enjoys the respect and appreciation of her patients.

In chapters that alternate effectively between the two lovers, Payne plumbs the dark waters of Joe's troubled mind and Day's increasing frustration with this man she can't entirely reach.

Payne takes a variety of risks here. His style is often extravagantly rich, the local dialect can be distracting, and all the mari-time terminology is rough sailing for those with land legs. Also, for a hundred pages the story develops at a deliberate pace that may put off less-trusting readers. But the grains of this plot eventually gain an irresistible momentum till it begins to move like an avalanche, crashing toward a spectacular natural disaster and a moral calamity.

When the preacher's teenage niece gets pregnant, Day and Joe find themselves on opposite sides of the debate that continues to polarize America. Day sees a young woman being ground into a life she doesn't want, a flat housewife existence without a career or even a college education. Joe's insistence that they not impose their liberal values on this traditional culture strikes her as cold and cruel.

These are smart, articulate people, and Payne never lets them ossify into mouth pieces for differing sides of the debate. Even at church, in a scene of wincing intensity, the preacher and his conservative followers speak from the heart, not from position papers. Their harsh standards and inflexible ideals would have been easy to satirize or demonize, but Payne respects them too much for that.

Meanwhile, circumstances begin to crush Joe in the vise of his own indecision, "his chameleonlike ability to self-immolate and rematerialize, shape-shifted into one or more of any number of opposing points of view." Can he befriend his fishing buddies while continuing to stare at them on the end of a pin? Can he commit to a relationship with Day without repeating the horrors of his parents' marriage?

Joe's search for the magnetic field that orients people's lives and shapes their thoughts and actions finally takes him deep into that first, final, and most harrowing subject: himself.

The novel reaches its climax in an explosively told disaster at sea that makes it clear there are no perfect storms. Payne is a rough, but trustworthy captain, and this is a story that rolls and pitches through all the moral waves of modern life.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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