STERN MEN By Elizabeth Gilbert Houghton Mifflin 289 pp., $24
It turns out Annie Proulx went too far in "The Shipping News." You don't have to go all the way to Newfoundland to find irresistibly quirky people living off the cold sea. Elizabeth Gilbert found them in Maine.
In "Stern Men," her first novel, Gilbert describes the contentious battles between lobstermen living on Fort Niles and Courne Haven, two almost identical islands 20 miles off the coast. These are places inhabited by quiet men who carry a big claw.
As Gilbert wittily suggests at the start of each chapter, their lives reflect the prickly, hard-bodied lives of their catch. Their work is isolating and fiercely competitive. There are no fences in the ocean, no legal way to mark one's lobster "fields" except by tradition and intimidation.
"Every lobster one man catches," Gilbert notes, "is a lobster another man has lost. It is a mean business, and it makes for mean men. As humans, after all, we become what we seek."
Despite the wry comedy of this novel, it doesn't try to hide the scars of human cruelty. For generations, the two islands have fallen into periodic "lobster wars" that decimate their business, destroying boats, traps, and lives.
But beneath a fierce-looking exoskeleton, these hard-drinking, foul-mouthed characters are surprisingly sweet. You just have to know how to handle them. Gilbert does.
And eventually, so does her heroine, Ruth Thomas. She's a smart, aimless young woman who's returned to Fort Niles after an expensive private-school education that makes her a misfit in this little world of misfits.
Ruth isn't sure what to do on an island that employs only men. Women here typically become mothers or alcoholics (or both), but neither of those career moves interests her. She'd like to work as a sternman for her father, the island's most successful lobsterman, but he won't hear of it.
Ruth's peculiar family history conspires with her own immaturity to keep her on the island in a state of agitated suspension. Her grandmother and mother spent their lives working as virtual slaves for the Ellises, a wealthy dynasty that stripped the island of its granite and Ruth's family of its dignity.
The Ellises are now down to a few ancient members - hysterically described in all their self-absorption - but they're still trying to exert their influence. Determined to resist them and their controlling generosity, Ruth turns down their offer of college tuition to loiter around the island, alternately concerned and annoyed with her father and his quarrelsome friends.
She spends her days chatting with Mrs. Pommeroy, her sweet foster mother who supports herself by cutting the hair of everyone on the island. Mrs. Pommeroy had always hoped Ruth would marry one of her seven boys, but her boys are more numerous than desirable.
Ruth's other companion is old Senator Simon Adams, the island's archaeological authority who was never a senator nor an archaeological authority. He dreams of putting his collection of artifacts (junk) into a museum of natural history. But his greater concern is providing employment for one of Mrs. Pommeroy's mentally challenged sons. His latest quest concerns the tusks of a circus elephant that died in a shipwreck 138 years ago. Ruth and the senator spend weeks watching young Webster trudge through the mud flats looking for such treasures.
This is all funny for us, but it's no life for a smart young woman, and Ruth knows it. In the midst of her boredom and despair, she spots Owney Wishnell, the quiet nephew of a wealthy minister from the other island. Think "Romeo and Juliet" with a Maine drawl and a much happier ending. It turns out ya can get thah from heah.
"Stern Men" maintains a tricky balance between romance and tragedy, the comic and the grotesque. Gilbert demonstrates a sweet care for these wounded, quirky characters with all their foibles and limitations. She's particularly sensitive to the way they talk or, more commonly, sulk.
If there's anything to complain about in "Stern Men," it's clustered at the end. Why, in such a delightfully original story, are we served up a clich sex scene that reads like something from the true confessions column of a men's magazine? (Gilbert is currently a writer for GQ.)
Second, and perhaps more disappointing, the most substantial character development takes place off-stage during a five-year gap between the end of the story and a brief epilogue that lets us know how wonderfully everything turned out once everyone started behaving better. Having detailed these people's stagnant lives so effectively, Gilbert seems unwilling to describe their molting process during the crucial phase.
But these are minor complaints about a book that's perfect for summer reading and deep enough to crack the prevailing wisdom that competition is the highest state of being. Beneath the waves of wit and romance, "Stern Men" is a rich meal.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society