Joe Coomer,
Beachcombing for
a Shipwrecked God

(Graywolf, 1995)

I found this book by accident.

In 1995, when the book was first published, I belonged to a book club that featured it. I was about to move away from my childhood home, though, and despite the fact that it sounded like one I'd want to read -- I couldn't order. Three years later, in 1998, while wandering through Powell's in Portland, the cover happened to catch my eye. I put two and two together and nabbed it as fast as my wet little fingers could go.

For the next twenty-four hours, I was rapt. I stopped to sleep, work, and eat. The rest of the time, I was nose deep in Joe Coomer's Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God.

The book follows the story of Charlotte, a young archaeologist who "runs away" after the early death of her husband, Jonah. Not able to face looking at the life they'd built together -- or his overbearing-in-grief parents, who stalk her for information like a cat with prey -- she begins driving northward, stopping in a costal Maine town near the Piscataqua river mouth. Through a series of events governed by fate, she moves into a houseboat with two other women -- Chloe, an overweight late-teenager with a violent boyfriend, and Grace, the Rosinante's owner, a widowed faux-painter.

And there's Pinky. Not technically a roommate, Pinky is a dog. I do, however, feel it necessary to warn potential readers about Pinky, the ugliest bulldog in literature. Don't eat anything while reading the first hundred pages. Pinky is a nauseating creature, and it takes nearly that long for the reader to "get used to" the thing. Pinky has Issues (capital "I") -- his back legs don't work so well, he's asthmatic, he drools a lot, and has a perpetual problem with gas. The descriptions of Pinky eating can turn the most solid of stomachs. Why the delicate name "Pinky"? Parts of his anatomy can never properly be ... well ... sheathed. You get the picture.

*ahem* ....

This is not Coomer's first book, but it is among his best. He paints with a lyrical exactness a picture of these surroundings, these faces. It is a character-driven novel with a distinct and engaging plot that doesn't have to play second to the characters he's developed within that plot.

Also strong is Coomer's firm grasp of imagery and allegory. The three women are called "the Graces" by a neighboring boat-owner. As such, they carry off the maiden (Chloe), mother (Charlotte), and crone (Grace) reference. He deals with the concept of home being where you are -- being built with more than just wood and mortar. He often references Charlotte's archaeological digs before changing scenes to her ruminating about Jonah's death. It's as if he's relating the two -- peeling back the layers of memory and soil to find what was always there to begin with.

Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God is an amazing book. Since finding it in Powell's, I've carried it with me through two moves -- finding it and re-reading it about once a year, and it never fails to live up to itself. Every time through, I find something new that I didn't notice before. A quote I overlooked, a reference that I missed, a particularly good interaction or characterization. And every time through, the ending surprises me. The author took it into a completely different vein than I'd have guessed -- unexpected and refreshing, without any of the sentimental life-is-good happy ending junk that you find all too often. It's one of the few books that I feel the author knew where he wanted to go with the work -- and went there instead of rambling on into the sunset with the hero.

I am surprised that Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God isn't a movie yet, in fact. When it's made, I'll be the first one in line.

Unless they show a lot of Pinky.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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