Oyster

( 2 )

Overview

With comparisons to Flaubert, Chekhov, and Faulkner, O. Henry Award-winner John Biguenet earned wide acclaim for his debut short-story collection, The Torturer's Apprentice. In his astonishing first novel, Oyster, he demonstrates the same mastery of craft and rigor of vision that led critics across the country to join Robert Olen Butler in praising this "important new writer."

Set on the Louisiana coast in 1957, Oyster recounts the engrossing tale of a deadly rivalry between two...

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Overview

With comparisons to Flaubert, Chekhov, and Faulkner, O. Henry Award-winner John Biguenet earned wide acclaim for his debut short-story collection, The Torturer's Apprentice. In his astonishing first novel, Oyster, he demonstrates the same mastery of craft and rigor of vision that led critics across the country to join Robert Olen Butler in praising this "important new writer."

Set on the Louisiana coast in 1957, Oyster recounts the engrossing tale of a deadly rivalry between two families. To avoid ruin after years of declining oyster crops, Felix and Mathilde Petitjean offer their young daughter, Therese, in marriage to 52-year-old Horse Bruneau, who holds the papers on their boat and house. Bruneau has spent his life as Felix's rival for both the Petitjeans' century-old oyster beds and, as we learn, Mathilde. But as Therese explains to Horse one night as they float in a pirogue alone in the marsh, "I don't get bought for the price of no damn boat."

The spiraling violence of Oyster and the seething passions behind it drive an unpredictable tale of murder and revenge in which two women and the men who desire them play out a drama as elemental and inexorable as a Greek tragedy.

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Editorial Reviews

Book Magazine
This first novel about deadly family rivalries on the Louisiana coast in 1957 will likely seduce many readers. Biguenet, author of The Torturer's Apprentice, a successful collection of short stories, is a gifted stylist who knows how to set a scene. To avoid financial ruin after years of declining oyster crops, the Petitjeans offer their strong-willed and attractive eighteen-year-old daughter, Therese, in marriage to Horse Bruneau, a fifty-two-year-old reputed womanizer to whom they're heavily in debt. Therese has no intention of going along with this arrangement, and her reaction to her parents' plan triggers a series of violent acts between the two families, whose history, we discover, is deeper and more intimate than had been previously acknowledged. Biguenet is adept at maintaining suspense and generating, through graceful prose, a real sense of life on the bayou. —James Schiff
New York Times Book Review
“Biguenet’s calm, lucid prose is consistently entrancing.”
Esquire
“An outstanding first novel. . . full of mollusks, menace, and murder.”
Yale Review of Books
“Biguenet explores with startling honesty the virtues and flaws that reveal themselves when we encounter extraordinary situations.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“An astonishing, occasionally daunting imagination.”
Washington Post
“Truths. . . as universal as any Euripides might have contemplated.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Gripping.... An unforgettable look at the effects of generations of bad blood between two families.”
Playboy
“A rich gumbo of incest and longing that simmers with tension.”
USA Today
“Suspenseful and intriguing, with a sultry atmosphere and seething passions.”
Daily Mississippian
“A thrilling read filled with a complex and unpredictable plot.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“[Oyster] unfolds like a Rube Goldberg blueprint, … whose complicated network … entwines the lives of two families.”
New York Times
“Biguenet…catches the scents and sounds of the bayou, and his characters bristle with a dark intensity.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune
“A masterful tale of deadly rivalries.”
Booklist
"Gripping.... An unforgettable look at the effects of generations of bad blood between two families."
Publishers Weekly
Much feted for his debut collection of stories, The Torturer's Apprentice, Biguenet follows up with a steamy first novel set on the Louisiana coast. The Petitjeans and the Bruneaus are rival oyster fishing families in Plaquemines Parish in 1957, struggling to survive in an environment rapidly falling prey to petroleum companies and their ravaging of swamp and bayou ecosystems. As it gets more difficult to hang on economically, old families begin to slip. The Petitjean family, headed by Felix, has reluctantly turned to "Horse" Bruneau for a loan. Desperate for cash, Felix and his wife, Mathilde, approve Horse's plan to marry their daughter, Therese. Therese scotches that plan by luring Horse to the Petitjean property for a supposed midnight tryst, then murdering him. When Horse's body turns up in a trawler's net, his sons Darryl ("Little Horse") and Ross (with their gentler brother, Rusty, looking on in horror) murder Therese's brother, Alton, who they blame for Horse's murder since nobody even considers that a slip of a girl like Therese could kill the powerful Horse. Darryl has always hated Alton, anyway, suspecting (rightly, as it turns out) that Alton is his half brother the fruit of an affair between Mathilde and Horse. After the murder, Sheriff Christovich, an old beau of Mathilde's, manipulates Darryl into letting Rusty work for the Petitjeans, hoping Rusty will talk. But it is Therese who exacts vengeance on the Bruneau house with the implacability of a Plaquemines Lady Macbeth. While Biguenet makes the Bruneaus, except for Rusty, a bit too villainous and Therese a bit too clever for plausibility's sake, his debut satisfyingly penetrates the curtain of gumbo clich surrounding Cajun culture. (June) Forecast: Booksellers may expect to build handily on the success of The Torturer's Apprentice with this juicy follow-up and should certainly capitalize on the novel's regional appeal. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The oyster-rich bayou country of Louisiana in the 1950s is the setting for this remarkable first novel by Biguenet, author of the O. Henry Award-winning collection of short stories The Torturer's Apprentice. The bitter family rivalry between the Bruneaus and the Petitjeans, deeply rooted in their entangled past, leads to tragedy from the outset. A marriage arranged between young Therese Petitjean and the Bruneau patriarch to shore up the Petitjeans' finances ends violently in the first chapter, and matters don't improve from there. Day-to-day life for the oyster fishermen of the period is realistically portrayed as this tale of two doomed families unfolds. Colorful characters and a story line that rips along make this work captivating from start to finish. Comparisons to Faulkner might be a stretch, but Biguenet's steamy Southern flavor is memorable. Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Louisiana's oyster-rich Gulf Coast area during the late 1950s provides the vivid setting for this thickly plotted tale of murder, revenge, and other steamy passions, from the former New Orleans Review editor and author of last year's debut collection The Torturer's Apprentice. Biguenet's story jump-starts with a stunningly described act of violence that widens the existing gap between the long-estranged Petitjean and Bruneau families, idles for rather too long as guilty matriarch Mathilde Petitjean explains to her volatile daughter Theresa the sources of the families' enduring enmity, then recovers energy as Theresa's righteous indignation pushes all the burdens imposed by both past and present toward the explosive denouement. The melodramatics may be a bit too rich for some palates, but it's crammed with colorful characters and fascinating local detail, and ought to make un grand movie.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060514471
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Ecco Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 685,282
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

John Biguenet's fiction has appeared in such publications as Esquire, Granta, Playboy, Story, and Zoetrope. The winner of an 0. Henry Award for short fiction, he lives in New Orleans. Ecco published his debut collection of stories, The Torturer's Apprentice, in 2001. Oyster is his first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



The muffled slap of the paddle against the black water betrayed Horse's impatience as the pirogue nosed into Petitjean's bayou, clinging to the darkness of the overhanging trees along the bank. But half-submerged cypress knees rasping down the hull of the narrow boat and low-slung branches, perhaps sagging under the weight of fat cottonmouths, slowed the pirogue's progress. Thinking of the snakes, Horse unsheathed his knife and drove it into the seat beside him.

Though it was nearly midnight, the air was still thick with heat. Later, before dawn, a chill would settle. Sleepers, waking under the slow blades of ceiling fans, would reach down among their feet to drag sheets over cold bodies. Wives would sit up to put on the nightgowns their husbands had stripped from them hours earlier. Children would crawl into each other's beds. But until then, for another few hours, the heat would continue to ooze up through the floorboards of the houses, to drip from the needles of the pines. And a man's hand would cut through the humid air like a fin splaying the water.

A light flickered through the tangled darkness. It blinked again and again as the boat glided past the black tree trunks lining the bank and sometimes rising out of the bayou. Horse knew the beacon was Petitjean's yard light. It occurred to him that to get to the dock on the far side of the clearing, he would have to slip past his old rival's landing without trees to conceal him. The full moon, though low in the sky, worried him.

Even as he considered how to pass unseen, the trees began to thin. He could makeout the house, set back twenty yards from the bayou. All the inside lights were out; the family would be asleep by now.

Horse bent over, dragging himself hand over hand along the bank where he could, paddling as well as he was able when he had to. Though, after a beer or two at R&J's, he would boast that he was the fittest fifty-two-year-old oysterman in Plaquemines Parish, he knew he shouldn't have made the run all the way from his camp on Bayou Dulac. His shoulders throbbed, and even his back was starting to ache. Why the hell did it have to be by boat? he asked himself.

As the pirogue sidled up to the splintery dock, he grabbed hold of a piling. He let the sluggish current pin his boat against the rubber tires nailed to the crossbeams. On the other side of the pier, the Mathilde slept lightly in its moorings.

Horse lifted himself up a bit and whispered into the darkness, "Therese?"

Among the pines beyond the dock, a figure slowly stepped out of the shadows. A barefoot girl in a thin dress approached. Horse started to tie up his boat.

"No, take me for a ride," she insisted, slipping his bow line off the piling.

"Sure, ma chère," he said, "we'll go for a ride." He helped her down into the wobbly pirogue. "Is that why you had me come by boat?"

"You just get us out and away from my daddy's house," she answered with her back to him in the bow.

Horse pushed off from the dock toward the bayou's deep water. With the girl in his boat, he felt suddenly emboldened, even with the moon waxing in the sky. Despite the sharp pain in his shoulders, the paddle dug deep. His powerful strokes nearly lifted them out of the water.

As they reached the channel, a quarter mile from her house, the girl told the man to tie up the boat. Horse eased the pirogue into the reeds, grounding on the slushy mud of the marsh bank. The aft still stirred in the eddying current, so he dropped a bucket filled with concrete over the side as an anchor and tied off its cord around the thick handle of the knife he had driven into his bench.

"You think that'll hold?" Therese asked as she turned around in her seat.

"We ain't going nowhere," he assured her, wrapping one more turn of the line around the hilt of his knife.

Horse slapped a mosquito on his neck. "So why you wanted to see me so secret and all?"

"You set on marrying me, aren't you?"

"Therese, you're promised to me."

"You older than my mama, Horse, she protested, "and me, I just made eighteen last month."

"Girl, you more than old enough to be somebody's wife. Way more."

"Why you want me, anyway?"

The man shifted his weight, and the boat rocked ever so slightly. "You know why," he whispered.

"It ain't like the old days, Darryl. My daddy can't give me away."

Horse rubbed his face with his hands, then looked up at the girl. "If you'd just say yes, there wouldn't be no problem." He could see she remained unmoved. "Look, we neither of us can make a go of it without the other's oyster beds. There's red tide all over Barataria Bay, and you know ain't none of us is raking shit even way up in Bay Sansbois. How many sacks your daddy and your brother bring in last week, huh? But I got a plan." A frog bellowed somewhere nearby. "You know what I'm saying. We need each other."

"Yeah, I know your plan. You want to steal my daddy's oysters 'cause the state's gonna close your beds."

"Who says?"

"Everybody says. It don't take no genius to read the bacteria counts in the paper."

"That's a damn lie. My oysters are the cleanest in Plaquemines Parish." Horse made a fist, crushing his anger in the palm of his hand. "Anyway," he said, taking a deep breath, "how could I ever..."

Oyster. Copyright © by John Biguenet. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

Chapter One



The muffled slap of the paddle against the black water betrayed Horse's impatience as the pirogue nosed into Petitjean's bayou, clinging to the darkness of the overhanging trees along the bank. But half-submerged cypress knees rasping down the hull of the narrow boat and low-slung branches, perhaps sagging under the weight of fat cottonmouths, slowed the pirogue's progress. Thinking of the snakes, Horse unsheathed his knife and drove it into the seat beside him.

Though it was nearly midnight, the air was still thick with heat. Later, before dawn, a chill would settle. Sleepers, waking under the slow blades of ceiling fans, would reach down among their feet to drag sheets over cold bodies. Wives would sit up to put on the nightgowns their husbands had stripped from them hours earlier. Children would crawl into each other's beds. But until then, for another few hours, the heat would continue to ooze up through the floorboards of the houses, to drip from the needles of the pines. And a man's hand would cut through the humid air like a fin splaying the water.

A light flickered through the tangled darkness. It blinked again and again as the boat glided past the black tree trunks lining the bank and sometimes rising out of the bayou. Horse knew the beacon was Petitjean's yard light. It occurred to him that to get to the dock on the far side of the clearing, he would have to slip past his old rival's landing without trees to conceal him. The full moon, though low in the sky, worried him.

Even as he considered how to pass unseen, the trees began to thin. He couldmake out the house, set back twenty yards from the bayou. All the inside lights were out; the family would be asleep by now.

Horse bent over, dragging himself hand over hand along the bank where he could, paddling as well as he was able when he had to. Though, after a beer or two at R&J's, he would boast that he was the fittest fifty-two-year-old oysterman in Plaquemines Parish, he knew he shouldn't have made the run all the way from his camp on Bayou Dulac. His shoulders throbbed, and even his back was starting to ache. Why the hell did it have to be by boat? he asked himself.

As the pirogue sidled up to the splintery dock, he grabbed hold of a piling. He let the sluggish current pin his boat against the rubber tires nailed to the crossbeams. On the other side of the pier, the Mathilde slept lightly in its moorings.

Horse lifted himself up a bit and whispered into the darkness, "Therese?"

Among the pines beyond the dock, a figure slowly stepped out of the shadows. A barefoot girl in a thin dress approached. Horse started to tie up his boat.

"No, take me for a ride," she insisted, slipping his bow line off the piling.

"Sure, ma chère," he said, "we'll go for a ride." He helped her down into the wobbly pirogue. "Is that why you had me come by boat?"

"You just get us out and away from my daddy's house," she answered with her back to him in the bow.

Horse pushed off from the dock toward the bayou's deep water. With the girl in his boat, he felt suddenly emboldened, even with the moon waxing in the sky. Despite the sharp pain in his shoulders, the paddle dug deep. His powerful strokes nearly lifted them out of the water.

As they reached the channel, a quarter mile from her house, the girl told the man to tie up the boat. Horse eased the pirogue into the reeds, grounding on the slushy mud of the marsh bank. The aft still stirred in the eddying current, so he dropped a bucket filled with concrete over the side as an anchor and tied off its cord around the thick handle of the knife he had driven into his bench.

"You think that'll hold?" Therese asked as she turned around in her seat.

"We ain't going nowhere," he assured her, wrapping one more turn of the line around the hilt of his knife.

Horse slapped a mosquito on his neck. "So why you wanted to see me so secret and all?"

"You set on marrying me, aren't you?"

"Therese, you're promised to me."

"You older than my mama, Horse, she protested, "and me, I just made eighteen last month."

"Girl, you more than old enough to be somebody's wife. Way more."

"Why you want me, anyway?"

The man shifted his weight, and the boat rocked ever so slightly. "You know why," he whispered.

"It ain't like the old days, Darryl. My daddy can't give me away."

Horse rubbed his face with his hands, then looked up at the girl. "If you'd just say yes, there wouldn't be no problem." He could see she remained unmoved. "Look, we neither of us can make a go of it without the other's oyster beds. There's red tide all over Barataria Bay, and you know ain't none of us is raking shit even way up in Bay Sansbois. How many sacks your daddy and your brother bring in last week, huh? But I got a plan." A frog bellowed somewhere nearby. "You know what I'm saying. We need each other."

"Yeah, I know your plan. You want to steal my daddy's oysters 'cause the state's gonna close your beds."

"Who says?"

"Everybody says. It don't take no genius to read the bacteria counts in the paper."

"That's a damn lie. My oysters are the cleanest in Plaquemines Parish." Horse made a fist, crushing his anger in the palm of his hand. "Anyway," he said, taking a deep breath, "how could I ever..."

Oyster. Copyright © by John Biguenet. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Set on the Louisiana coast in 1957, Oyster recounts the engrossing tale of a deadly rivalry between two families. To avoid ruin after years of declining oyster crops, Felix and Mathilde Petitjean offer their young daughter, Therese, in marriage to 52-year-old Horse Bruneau, who holds the papers on their boat and house. Bruneau has spent his life as Felix's rival for both the Petitjeans' century-old oyster beds and, as we learn, Mathilde.

These characters inhabit a harsh environment in which people save themselves, if they are to be saved at all. People work there without a margin, their boats mortgaged to the next harvest of shrimp or oysters, their work one of the most dangerous of daily occupations, their emotions scraped raw by the grievances they cultivate and pass down to their children as the only lasting inheritance of a life of poverty.

The spiraling violence of Oyster and the seething passions behind it drive an unpredictable tale of murder and revenge in which two women and the men who desire them play out a drama as elemental and inexorable as a Greek tragedy.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The author depicts four generations of Follain women. Does each succeeding generation press for greater freedom, and is there a price to be paid each time?

  2. Frequently in literature, things come in threes, such as three wishes or three chances. Do the three Bruneau brothers represent three different kinds of men?

  3. There is strict racial segregation in Plaquemines Parish in 1957, but what are the other ways that world is segregated? Are the tasks and clothing and even language of menand women clearly differentiated? And are religions vigilant to keep out the influence of other faiths?

  4. Set in the wetlands between sea and solid ground, Oyster has many elements that are in transition from one thing to another. What are some of the things in Egret Pass undergoing change?

  5. How are the characters' lives shaped by the need to survive in a capitalist economy?

  6. What is the role of religion in the world of these characters?

  7. How are Mathilde and her daughter similar, and where does Therese differ from her mother?

  8. Could one argue that the love story of Mathilde and Matthew Christovich is the real subject of the book?

  9. In the end, does the reader wind up sympathizing with a murderer, hoping she will escape the law? If so, how does the novel achieve this surprising moral conclusion?

  10. If you were to read the book a second time, do you think your feelings about Horse and Therese and the other characters might change?

About the Author:

John Biguenet, winner of an O. Henry Award for fiction, has published his stories in such journals as Esquire, Granta, Playboy, Story, and Zoetrope, as well as in various award anthologies. He is currently the Robert Hunter Distinguished Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2006

    excellent story

    This was an excellently written story. I really like the plot and the dramatic ending, and look forward to reading The Torturers Apprentice.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2006

    The characters are still in my head

    This book has more scandal and deception than People magazine yet is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in a long time. The images that John Biguenet creates makes me feel like I have seen these places and these faces before, and I won't soon forget them.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2003

    Southern Charm

    A good read filled with suspense and southern style. An entertaining tale.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2002

    did not want to leave the bayou

    this book is excellent!!!! it takes you to another time and place and the dynamic characters leave you begging for more. i highly recommend this book. shows a book does not have to be 400 pages to do the job and do it well. kudos!!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Excellent Read!

    Characters' emotions take life and transport you through their realistically brutal lives. I can't understand why this book isn't number one on the best seller's list. It is intellectual suspense. Also, the locale was extremely interesting. Wish I could find more books like this to read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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