By Margery Irvine
Special to the NEWS
ADAM THE KING, by Jeffrey Lewis, Other Press, New York, 2008, 224 pages, hardcover, $21.95.
If you were to ask me what I’ ve been reading recently, I might tell you that it’ s a book about guilt and redemption, about love and fate, about the past’ s encroachment on the present, about tragic flaws and tragic characters.
But maybe that would’ ve discouraged potential readers, who’ ve had enough of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, thank you very much, and are looking for a good read.
They need look no farther.
Jeffrey Lewis’ new book, “Adam the King,” the fourth in a quartet (preceded by “Meritocracy: A Love Story,” “The Conference of the Birds” and “Theme Song for an Old Show”), has a taut plot, pitch-perfect dialogue, and presents as accurate a picture of Down East coastal communities as anything I’ ve read.
Set in the small town of Clement’ s Cove, somewhere between Castine and Mount Desert Island, “Adam the King” continues the story of four friends, summer people all (although one, retired, now lives there year-round), who met while at Yale and are, in 1999, when the novel’ s action take place, middle-aged. One of the four is a writer and the narrator.
The plot itself is rather straightforward: Adam Bloch, another of the four, has become a billionaire, has built an enormous house on the water, and, as the novel opens, is marrying Maisie Maclaren, sister of a girl who died in a car accident (when Adam was at the wheel), some 25 years before. What we know by the end of the first chapter, which begins with “the wedding of the year,” is that Adam’ s house, a year and half later, is nothing but a burned-out hulk.
The complications begin with Maisie’ s love of swimming because she has had two bouts of Hodgkin’ s disease and the ensuing chemotherapy, however, she can no longer swim in Maine’ s frigid waters. So she asks Adam to construct a lap pool for her, and therein hangs the tale.
The best place for the pool, it turns out, is on adjoining land owned by Verna Hubbard. It’ s the last of the property once owned by Verna’ s forebears she has put her trailer on it, and has no intention of selling it. Her boyfriend, Roy, however, sees the matter differently: with some of the money Adam offers Verna, Roy wants to go into the limousine business with his friend Freddy.
Verna keeps saying no, Roy keeps saying yes, and that’ s as far as I’ ll go. But if all this seems rather simple and kind of old-fashioned, be assured, it’ s neither. Rather than being driven by plot, “Adam the King” is propelled by character, by psychological insights, and by the forces of a community divided at its core.
The four friends, perhaps because they’ ve remained connected, are constantly reminded of their past, of whatever weaknesses and transgressions now haunt them. Adam especially, who “was like a man doing penance,” is only a part of this novel Verna and Roy are equally as important, and the year-round community of Clement’ s Cove, the working people who gather in the general store, provide a counterpoint to the lives of their rich and famous neighbors. They not only comment on all the goings-on, but the story of Verna and Roy mirrors in a way the story of Adam and Maisie — both couples headed to sadness and loss, both propelled by forces and events arising from the bedrock of their characters.
Wonderfully written (“Light on its feet and stealthy, [the fog] slipped over the porch rails like a burglar and blew in whispers down the porch”), “Adam the King” makes maximum use of every word, paring down sentences to their indispensable parts Lewis’ eighth-grade teacher would have had a field day with a red pencil, marking “fragment!” in the margins. But it’ s how Lewis conveys so clearly the rhythms of speech, manages to make the reader feel as though he’ s listening to a story in that same general store.
The people of Clement’ s Cove, were such a place to exist in fact, might not agree on much they would, however, probably agree that Jeffrey Lewis has uncovered the truth of their community in “Adam the King.”