The picture that Crash Barry paints of Washington County in his new book, “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries,” isn’t exactly rosy, but it isn’t a Dickensian tale of desperate poverty, either. It’s an unvarnished, sometimes tragic, often funny account of one man’s descent into the seedy underbelly of the drug-fueled lives of impoverished, isolated residents of Maine’s easternmost county. Barry, a journalist, artist, musician and, now, novelist, isn’t making any apologies for the story he’s told.
“There tends to be a very idealized vision of Maine life that’s all lighthouses and lobsters and quaint small towns and all that,” said Barry, who is a regular contributor to Portland alternative monthly print and online publication The Bollard. “The great life we have in Maine comes with a huge price. There are so many people in poverty, struggling with addictions, especially in Washington County, that we can’t deny it anymore. If I wrote a novel about Washington County, I knew I had to talk about it.”
The initial idea for Barry’s book came nearly seven years ago, when he and his wife, Shana, also an artist and musician, moved from Portland to Eastport. Barry had received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission to write a book, and the couple was eager to try living in a rural area.
His plan was to write a nonfiction book about the blueberry industry, so to that end, he spent a few weeks raking blueberries, entrenching himself in the backbreaking work that so many Washington County residents do each summer.
“I raked blueberries with my eyes open. I tried to take in as much as I could while I did it,” Barry said. “It’s an extremely difficult way to make money, but it’s obviously a huge part of the economy.”
Publishers weren’t interested in a nonfiction book about the blueberry industry, so Barry shifted his plan from nonfiction to fiction. By the summer of 2009, however, after five years Down East, the couple realized they could no longer afford to live in Eastport after their art gallery, the Shag Gallery, closed, and viable employment was scarce. Despite their best intentions, it wasn’t possible to stay in Washington County.
In June 2009, they packed up and moved west to Oxford County. It was there that “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries” was written, drawing on Barry’s experience working the fields, and the people he encountered in Washington County.
The book tells the story of Ben, who moves Down East to the fictional Goose Island to live off the land with his wife. To make ends meet, he rakes blueberries in the summer, where he meets a cast of characters who are as resourceful as they are messed-up. There’s Richard, the volatile farmer, Buffy, his sleazy, sex-crazed sister, and her innocent son, Captain. Then there’s Ganeesh, the tough, handsome Passamaquoddy who owns a drug den in town, and Missy and Savannah, a pair of sexually liberal young women who accompany Ganeesh wherever he goes.
There are two things that bind all those characters together. Poverty is one; and the other is the popular painkiller OxyContin. The book came out around the same time as the mid-December release of a report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The report shows that since 1998, Mainers have consistently sought treatment for addiction to nonheroin opiates — such as OxyContin — at rates significantly higher than in other states or in the nation as a whole. Out of all the counties in Maine, Washington County has the highest rate of people seeking treatment — which means that Washington County presumably has one of the highest rates of nonheroin opiate abuse in the country.
“I saw firsthand people with pill problems while we were in Eastport, and it’s just heartbreaking,” Barry said. “It is unbelievable how a prescription drug can cause such misery. I felt as though that needed to be addressed, and announced. This is what happens when an opiate like this is just given away like candy to people who are in physical pain from backbreaking manual labor. It’s incredibly addictive, and it’s incredibly dangerous. Especially when combined with extreme poverty.”
In the book, Barry details the ways in which the pills tear apart families, increase crime, leave people broke and, in some cases, drive women to selling sex for drugs. Barry is unflinching in telling his story; scenes of sex and drug abuse are peppered through the book, told in lurid, sometimes distractingly graphic detail. “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries” is not for the faint of heart, but anyone curious about Maine’s dark side would do well to give it a read.
While it is, ultimately, a sad story, there also are flashes of deadpan Maine humor and colloquial eccentricity that give the book a realism reserved only for those who have actually been there. So far, the reaction from those in Washington County who have read the book has been mostly positive.
“I’ve had some really positive letters from folks who have read it who say, ‘I know these people. These are my neighbors. These are my relatives,’” Barry said. “They want the story to be told.”
Up next for Barry is a book expanding on the series of stories he wrote for The Bollard about his time living on Matinicus — what he calls “Maine’s toughest island.” For now he’s busy promoting his book, available at independent booksellers across the state, and online at www.crashbarry.com. Whether people enjoy the book or are offended by it, Barry just hopes that he’s able to shine a light on what drugs can do to rural communities, especially Washington County.
“If it hits a nerve with people, or makes them uncomfortable, so be it. I think that’s OK. I think people need to wake up to the reality for a lot of people in Washington County,” Barry said. “Yes, there’s a lot of sex and drugs. I wanted to tell a story that felt real to me. And this does.”
“Sex, Drugs and Blueberries,” by Crash Barry published by Maine Misadventures of Canton, is available in print, audio and e-book formats at www.sexdrugsandblueberries.com.