Three Hearts Join To Find Port in a Storm


By Joe Coomer

Graywolf Press,

245 pp., $22.95

Often the death of a loved one occasions in the survivor a psychological and emotional excavation of the heart. What did this person mean to me? What did I mean to him or her? How or when will I ever get over the loss, fill the void?

''Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God,'' by Joe Coomer, is a fascinating study of grief and the doubt and self-searching that emotion prompts in three women.

At the outset, none of the women's lives is on solid ground, literally and figuratively. They share a permanently docked boat. Each is searching for more secure footing: one for the truth about her relationship with her now gone husband; one for the life that appears to be slipping away; and one for a future to forge out of less-than-fortuitous circumstances.

Charlotte is an archaeologist who has just lost her husband in an accident. Stunned and oppressed by her own sadness, she flees both her home in Kentucky, and her devastated in-laws who cling too much, and moves to the coastal New Hampshire town of Portsmouth. There she takes up residence with the two other women who are also at odds with life.

A widow named Grace owns the boat, the Rosinante. Grace goes around town painting trompe d'oeil scenes (''I want to paint a puddle of water on a street with a nickel in the middle of the water. I want to paint it so persuasively that people break their knuckles putting their hand in the water going after that nickel.'') Grace is afraid of losing her memory, in effect losing her life in dribs and drabs. ''I'm always trying to remember something I've forgotten, trying to resurrect a little death, to make myself immortal by the power of my memory. It's all very humbling,'' she says.

The third woman is Chloe, a fat and somewhat peculiar teenager. She is estranged from her parents and entangled with a rather menacing good-for-nothing boyfriend. She also happens to be pregnant.

The three women cling to each other like barnacles to a boat plank, and within the nest of the Rosinante, they help each other. It's as if they represent the three ages of man, where each has a problem not unlike what many of us might face at some point.

Several things make this novel endearing. First, and you notice this on the first page, is the writing. Coomer is an excellent descriptive writer, poetic at times. On the streets of Portsmouth, ''cobbles and sills are footfall worn, cupped like waiting palms.'' A lobsterman reaches into a trap and brings ''forth a lobster waving semaphore.'' At times Coomer overreaches, but more often than not he writes with a fresh and open eye and you say to yourself that's exactly what a lobster looks like.

In Kentucky, Charlotte was a trained archaeologist. She volunteers at a local New Hampshire archaeological dig. The site is an old graveyard. Coomer writes wonderful descriptions of what goes on at a dig:

Charlotte ''began the simple backward motion, an eighth of an inch at a time, that eventually uncovers pyramids.... The natural inclination is to stab the point of the trowel into the heart of the earth and pop out the goodies, but it's best to move slowly, a layer at a time, in order to discover artifacts in situ, where they were dropped or laid down, and to look for relationships between artifacts and features.'' The dig becomes her memento mori.

What's heartening about this book is that while it examines common fears - of loss, of aging, of bringing a baby into the world (At one point Chloe says, ''There's nothing like having a baby to scare the living daylights out of you. I used to think spiders were bad....'') - the women try to run away from their fears, but end up facing them.

I like these women, and I like the fact that they worked to find what mattered to them in a difficult world.

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