October 10, 2011
Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God
Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God by Joe Coomer
1995 Scribner Paperback Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Nine weeks after losing her husband, Charlotte escapes to a wooden motor yacht in New Hampshire, where her shipmates are an aging blue-haired widow, an emotional seventeen-year-old, and the ugliest dog in literature. A genuine bond develops among the three women, as their distinct personalities and paths cross and converge against the backdrop of emotional secrets, abuse, and the wages of old age.
Off the boat, Charlotte, an archaeologist, joins a local excavation to uncover an ancient graveyard. Here she can indulge her passion for reconstructing the past, even as she tries to bury her own recent history. She comes to realize, however, that the currents of time are as fluid and persistent as the water that drifts beneath her comforting new home.
In keeping with my beach/summer reading theme (yes, this review is long overdue!), I pulled Coomer’s novel off one of my shelves and was immediately pulled into his engaging story of three independent women, living aboard a wooden boat named Rosinante in Portsmouth Harbor, New Hampshire. I’ve never lived on a boat, but as I read, I was filled with blissful memories of two incredible weeks when my husband and I cruised the San Juan Islands aboard my dad and stepmom’s wooden boat, The Lady Mick. The nautical terminology I learned that summer all came flooding back as I read, reminding me of the unique lifestyle one enjoys while living aboard.
I laid down on my bunk, little dry silent Piscataqua on my chest, and listened instead to what my life in that room would be like. It seemed as though I were lying upon another living being who was as mindful, as tense, as I was. The boat had been alive, of course, constructed as far as I could tell entirely of wood. It reacted to the slightest change in both the wind and water with movements I could feel in the same way I could tell when Jonah moved beside me in bed. There was a floating sensation, as if I were being rearranged or adjusted. When the tide ebbed Rosinante was pushed up against the dock, tubular PVC fenders protecting the hull, and held there with, I suppose, the force of several tons of pressure. When the tide flowed, the boat went taut on the lines stretching to the dock’s galvanized cleats. I could hear these lines creaking and the slow groan of the boat’s timbers, each fastener taking its turn to moan. Some form of friction was constant. The current sliding off the hull, perhaps four inches from my head, gurgled, shushed, and occasionally popped. As I lay there a small electric motor turned on somewhere beneath me, beneath the sole, and I heard a stream of water falling into the river outside the hull. It lasted for perhaps thirty seconds and the motor shut off. The boat had peed. It was silly, but it made me smile.
Ah, the bilge pump. A boat-owner’s best friend.
I believe my heart has always found peace when near any body of water. Those two weeks aboard The Lady Mick, as well as a week on the Oregon Coast, in Little Whale Cove, were incredibly healing for both me and my husband after tragedy struck our family several years ago. Time became elusive and routines vanished as we drifted about in our thoughts and memories, lulled to sleep by the slapping of the water against the hull or to the distant echo of waves crashing against the rocky shoreline.
Joe Coomer captures this state of mind so adroitly:
I came across a love of moving water, an ebbing tide parting on the plumb bow of an old boat, and the sea passing swiftly along the waterline carried bits of seaweed, the body of a dead bird, a dark brown leaf, and a love that seemed necessary to me, to be near that abrasive current, the green swell and nascent gurgle. I thought I’d never be able to love anything again, anything other than the memory of my husband, and so I felt ashamed and queer kneeling there on the dock, my bag over one shoulder and a kitten inside my coat, looking down into the water of Portsmouth Harbor, and feeling for a moment, not sad.
I’d left home, quit my job. I was the only person on the planet, outside of Grace, who knew where I was. It felt safe. I’d left at least some of my grief a thousand miles away. Another delusion, another pretty thought, shimmering above my head like the reflection of light off the water that entered through the windows of my snug cabin, my constantly shifting home.
There is something cozy, almost cocoon-like, about living on a boat:
It was almost dark by the time I stepped back aboard the old cruiser. A passing boat rolled over a wake that rocked Rosinante at her berth, and I had the same queer sensation that she was alive when my foot touched her deck, that I’d stepped on something that breathed. The windows of the salon were fogged, but a dim light still shone from within. Heat and a faint smoke issued from the stack over the galley and was blown upriver. I pushed down on the brass lever with my free hand, and let myself in as quietly as possible. The mahogany table in front of the settee was set with silver, china and crystal, cloth napkins. Above the table an oil lamp that I’d thought was merely decorative was burning.
This was my first encounter with Joe Coomer and it won’t be the last. His main characters are sharply drawn, a bit quirky, and completely likeable. The plot and dialogue are both refreshing and engaging and I was sorry to see this lyrical story come to an end. What a wonderful film this would make!
If I were to ever win the lottery, the first thing I’d do is buy a house along the Oregon or Washington coast. Of course, I’d happily share the wealth with my husband, so the second thing I’d do is take him shopping for a boat. What more could we possible need?