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Down to the Sea on a Rising Tide


SPARTINA by John Casey, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 375 pp. $18.95

DICK PIERCE, hero of John Casey's new novel, is Odysseus as painted by Winslow Homer and brought to you by the producers of ``thirtysomething.''

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A ``dumb swamp Yankee'' from Galilee, R.I., Pierce is more at home at sea than with his wife and boys on land. The novel opens as the tide starts turning for him. Having lost his job at the boatyard because of his barbed remarks to the New England bankers and lawyers who make up the clientele, Pierce is building his own boat. He's stuck for lack of funds. He's also stuck emotionally.

But as the novel progresses, he blasts himself loose with the help of a pretty rich girl named Elsie Buttrick. Elsie seems to have a genuine affection for him. By the end of the novel, Dick has ``opened himself up'' as the saying goes: His vocabulary, which used to consist of ``yup'' and explosive one-liners, has an almost fluid eloquence.

That's one way of putting it. It seriously underestimates the craft of this novel, which mirrors the kind of wisdom Dick embodies in his boat. Start with the title. Spartina is the only grass that thrives in the ponds that fill with saltwater when the tide is in; it thrives because it keeps out the salt until the pond is fresh again. ``Smart grass,'' acknowledges the author in Dick's vernacular. ``Spartina'' is also the name of his boat, which is the key to his future independence.

In sum, spartina stands for nature and art, or the wisdom embodied in both that keeps out the poison of too-concentrated experience. Dick has been poisoned by the bitterness that has built up in him as he sees his family's lands go to the idle rich and as he yields to the impulse to judge righteous judgment. Dick makes the phrase ``old salt'' look like a curse.

There are all kinds of writing in this book. Dick's short fuse and narrow range of verbal expression mask his deep, almost visionary perceptiveness and a tender regard for nature. Seeing Elsie wake up after a bout of seasickness, he watches her as he would a sea bird: ``She pulled on a sweater, stretched her arms. He could tell she felt better. She pulled her hands back through her hair and sank down again all in one motion, graceful as a passing wave.''

Casey can also deploy the abstractions implicit in nature and human activity. At the height of their affair, Elsie and Dick stare at each other over the abyss caused by cultural as well as sexual polarization. She's a rich kid with a taste for French novels, living on the edge of respectability; he's a middle-aged Yankee increasingly aware that his self-imposed burden of the old ways is crippling him for life. She's fluid and shifty where he is hard and detached. One night they get in a canoe and glide up one of the creeks that perforate the Rhode Island coast.

``It was the dark of the moon; the tide was going to brim up well into the marsh.'' By this time, we are alert to these signs. Casey is not afraid of the old romantic vice of the pathetic fallacy. Even for the all-too-human Dick, nature and human nature vibrate to the same tone.

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Through a series of connections too complex to analyze here (``Spartina'' among other things presents a full picture of the culture of modern Rhode Island, new and old money, and Vietnam boat people, too), Elsie gets the money Dick needs to finish his boat. She also gets pregnant. By design, not accident: There is never a thought of abortion and Elsie makes plans to raise Dick's child without Dick.

Almost as soon as Dick's boat is in the water, a hurricane blows up and he solos her out to sea so she won't get damaged slamming into other boats or the dock. Dick's days and nights in the hurricane occasion some brilliant writing. Casey's meticulous style laminates the violence of the storm, reflecting in its rippling, polished surface every change in light, swell, and atmosphere, every change in Dick.

For Dick has changed. He has intuitively sought out situations where he would be forced to discover his own capacity for play. Out there alone he thinks about his boys, Charlie and Tom, about the books he read them when they were young. When the storm dies down, we know this has been a rebirth. Dick thinks about Spartina: ``... he felt she was all new to him. He knew where everything was, it wasn't that. But this view of her took him by surprise, like when he'd walked in to see May after Charlie was born.''

So it's May, not Elsie, that comes to mind when he thinks of Spartina. Casey takes risks with May by making her not only the ideal wife for Dick - as tough as he - but by making her his ideal woman. After he tells her about Elsie, she doesn't explode. She insists he take responsibility for the baby. She sends him back to Spartina to think about it for a night, then welcomes him back, commenting freely about Elsie. He wisely keeps his mouth shut. Later, when Elsie asks about May, Dick's words reflect the distance he's come, his new lack of self-pity: ``I'm not sure I get everything May's thinking. I've never had to forgive anybody.''

The novel ends on the moment of plenum, of Dick's self-understanding and contentment, of being-in-the-present, of happiness. There may be too many words elaborating Dick's final state of being at peace with himself and the world, but this flow of discourse wells up from a source deep in Casey's art, the art that allows how a grass can tell salt from fresh, how a well-built boat can survive a hurricane, how a woman can survive a birth, how a man can survive his own cussed self.

After all the action of the novel, the reader is, a little like May, just tired. But to deny Dick this moment of understanding, would be to return to the old Dick with a vengeance. And in the world created by John Casey in ``Spartina,'' there's no room for vengeance, only love.

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