by John Casey
Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95
A woman living in an insular New England town conceives a child out of wedlock. Knowing that the townspeople would disapprove of her circumstances, she goes into hiding and gives birth to a daughter. To protect those involved, she keeps the father’s identity secret. But the town suspects the truth. What happens next?
That’s the province of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story about adultery. Who can forget its iconic characters? Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s heroine, agonizes over her guilt; Arthur Dimmesdale is her valiant but weak lover; Roger Chillingworth is the archetypal villain. The book fairly pulses with love and lust even though the sexual feelings are understated. One cannot say the same about this novel, John Casey’s fifth, another story about adultery.
This is not to say that Casey doesn’t provide passages that seem like poetry, or moments that exude powerful emotions, where the interconnectedness that exists among people feels almost palpable. But those moments tend to get lost amid the overheated prose. Compass Rose is a follow up to Spartina, winner of the 1989 National Book Award and the first of a projected trilogy. One doesn’t have to read Spartina to understand Compass, but it helps. The first novel establishes the setting, a small Rhode Island town, the cast of characters, the adulterous affair which leads to the birth of Rose-—the so-to-speak compass of the title.
Told from the vantage point of Dick Pierce, Spartina plumbs Pierce’s anxiety as he is torn between his loyalty to his wife and family and his lust for Elsie Buttrick. Dick, a deep-sea fisherman, is seduced by Elsie, who, at story’s end, has conceived their child. Nearly overcome with guilt, Dick is forced to live a lie: He deceives his wife, May, their two sons, his coworkers, and friends, but most of all he deceives himself and, in some of the most evocative scenes in the novel, comes to regret it. The plot is fairly simple. Seeing into Dick’s psyche, readers can sympathize with him.
In Compass, Dick plays a minor role, even though Casey seems to have an astute understanding of his character and of the male psyche. (The same can’t be said of his understanding of the female psyche.) Dick spends most of this second novel at work in the boatyard. When he’s not working, he tries to avoid conflict. Compass has multiple subplots: There’s Rose, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her almost nonrelationship with her father. With whom should she live? Where should she go to school?
There are money problems. An accident at sea puts Dick in the hospital and almost kills another man. His boat is damaged beyond repair. Dick and May worry they may lose their home to an unscrupulous developer, Elsie’s brother-in-law. And hovering over all, there’s Elsie, who lives in a neighboring house, raising her daughter while eyeing any attractive males who come her way. Will she seduce Dick again? How long will he be able to resist?
These are just some of the questions that arise. The events unfold chaotically. Things seem to happen around the characters—not within them. The story covers Rose’s growing-up from six months to 16 years and is told from the perspectives of three women: Elsie Buttrick, who much more closely resembles Scarlett O’Hara than she does Hester Prynne; her friend Mary Scanlon, who babysits Rose; and May Pierce, who dotes on Rose as if she were her own. May, insisting that Dick act responsibly toward his illegitimate child, also helps Elsie with child-rearing. As Rose spends time with her various mothers, she gives the plot what direction it has. She’s also one of the few believable characters.
May seems too good to be true. Perhaps she loves Rose as her daughter, despite the circumstances of her birth and conception. But her attitude seems superhuman, and Casey offers little insight into how May acquired such strong maternal feelings for the offspring of her husband’s paramour. Elsie works as a forest ranger, a school board administrator, and caretaker for her ailing mentor (her only redeeming characteristic) when she’s not scheming about bedding Dick and several other men in the story. Even Rose complains about Elsie, who, when she’s well into middle age, has sex in parked cars!
By novel’s end, Elsie has become involved with, seduced, and dropped several men. She’s also befriended May while she’s still in love with Dick, or at least desires him. The final pages have a faint Molly Bloom aroma as Casey slows the pace to show Elsie fantasizing about Dick. She’s swimming naked (of course) in her pool at night, which just happens to be in her front yard and the very spot where she saw Dick while she was nursing Rose when the narrative began. She hears a sound. Is that his truck? No, it’s Walt, another male friend who, she observes “had had her, had pulled orgasms out of her like fish on a trotline.” Walt has chosen this very moment to return a book that Elsie left at a party. As he leaves, Elsie finds tendrils across her shoulder. She feels wet and checks to see whether she’s menstruating. No, she’s in the pool. Perhaps she’s pregnant again? Who knows? The answer will have to wait for volume three of the saga.
Diane Scharper, editor of Reading Lips, a collection of memoirs, teaches at Towson University.