Oyster: A Novelby John Biguenet
With comparisons to Flaubert, Chekhov, and Faulkner, 0. Henry Award-winner John Biguenet earned wide acclaim for his debut short-story collection, The Torturer's Apprentice. In his much anticipated 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/b>/b>
With comparisons to Flaubert, Chekhov, and Faulkner, 0. Henry Award-winner John Biguenet earned wide acclaim for his debut short-story collection, The Torturer's Apprentice. In his much anticipated 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."
These characters inhabit a harsh environment in which people save themselves, if they are to be saved at all. The rapid sequence of events of the opening of the novel is typical of the sudden violence that is never more than an insult away in the muddy wastes of the marsh. 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.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 6.62(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.01(d)
Read an Excerpt
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."
"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.
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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