Down East Books, 256pp, $24.95
It's a real pleasure to write about a novel that has been an enjoyable read. Hull Creek is a delight from beginning to end. The fishing village is on the mid-coast of Maine. It is in grave flux, having been discovered by the "swanks" (in general people "from away" who are unacquainted with physical work and dress the part). Protagonist, Troy Hull is the last in a long family of lobster fishermen. He lives in the family homestead which abuts Hull Creek. It's a little creaky since the fishing hasn't been so hot and repairs to the house are at the end of the line of priorities, right after keeping the boat and the gear in good shape. Ominously, the house next door has been bought by people "from away" and is summarily demolished to make way for yet another multi-thousand square foot "summer cottage". Troy is determined not to sell out but the "bugs" have made themselves scarce since last winter.
It's a slippery slope...taking out a mortgage for a better boat so he can range farther and fish more, but as the book opens, Troy is called into the bank manager's office to be reminded of his "arrears." Lobsterman and bank manager grew up together, went to the same high school...but somehow, lately, that accounts for less than the rising ambitions of the bank's officers and board.
Add to his financial woes, Troy's wife has left him, seeking greener pastures and his best friend from high school, Bill Polky, also a fisherman, has lately taken to supplementing his income with after-hours trips to Nova Scotia. Further complicating matters, a TV talk show arrives in town to "highlight" the pleasures of small town living on the Maine coast.
Nichols is a master of dialog...his ear is tuned into regional work-a-day conversation. Given that the Northern New England accent is so often parodied it is always at risk of being overdone. Sparseness of words is often the key and Nichols dialog conveys more with less than any writer I have come across in a long time.
The plot of Hull Creek is simple but dicey. Nichols does a nice job depicting class tensions, resisting the temptation to exaggerate, relying on the action to convey the vast distance between the world views of the natives and the "swanks". No character is used as a buffoon for the sake of contrast. In fact, one character, ostracized for posing as a tough, plays an active part in our hero's escape from the cops.
The character that charmed me most, though thinly sketched, is Eddie Cranberry, a gentle man of simple mind who hangs around the docks looking to help out. He is adamantly opposed to taking the name of the lord in vain and complains loudly when somebody "slips." The toughest fishermen defer to Eddie and keep a collective eye out for his safety. Somehow, the presence of this character on the docks every day, feeling that he has a place and a purpose helping out is the embodiment of small town living. The sense of community, a shared history that we all contribute to each other's well-being as our talents allow, is what will be lost when a town is gobbled up the people "from away." Naive and sentimental, I know, but that's just me. The book is neither.