From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review A small masterpiece. Simmons has found the perfect, delicate, elegiac voice.
The Wall Street Journal A simple and spellbinding novel...grimly enchanting....A powerful, 20th-century tragedy of an American family.
Booklist A riveting story of youthful innocence consumed by betrayal. Remarkably enthralling and agonizingly revealing....Simmons...maneuvers unfalteringly between each of his characters....The book's opening line leads like a wick into a powder keg of unexpected consequences. Simply spellbinding.
The Wall Street Journal The mastery of the telling...keeps one continually off balance until the maelstrom of a conclusion.
Kirkus Reviews A little saga of adolescence...a perfectly-cut gem of its kind.
NY Times Book Review
A delicate, elegiac, regretful novel. . .in which boy meets girl and dad steals girl on an island off New England in the last enchanted summer of 1963.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Simmons, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review, made his name as a writer with a series of surreal comic novels, including Powdered Eggs and Wrinkles, but the present book, a coming-of-age novella, is a complete change of pace. Written in a spare masculine style, it is based loosely on Turgenev's classic First Love and is narrated by Michael Petrovich, who recalls the memorable summer of 1963 when he was 16 and when Mrs. Mertz and her beautiful daughter, Zina, rented a neighboring house on the East Coast offshore island of Bone Point. Michael's father is a handsome philanderer whose easygoing ways cause tension with his mother; meanwhile, Michael is trying to impress Zina while rejecting the cynical view of women offered by a worldly young friend. Matters come to a tragic head at the Labor Day party that ends this unsettling summer. Simmons's calm, detached telling of the tale, and the major role played by the strongly evoked ocean setting, make for an experience that seems more European than American, and it is interesting to note that this slight but telling book was first published, to enthusiastic reviews, in France.
Charles Simmons has taken a timeless theme and anchored it to the memory of a summer isle in his new coming-of-age story, Salt Water. The year is 1963; the setting is a spacious family home - complete with guesthouse and mother-and-daughter tenants - on a tiny island off New England. The novel's 15-year-old narrator, Michael, lays out the plot in the opening sentence: He falls in love and his father drowns. But Simmons draws on his skills as a former literary and travel editor to delineate the how and why of the two events, and the connection between them. Behind the story of Michael's emotional turmoil, there's always the backdrop of a shimmering island preserved in a certain moment and then forever put aside.
Simmons (Wrinkles, 1978; The Belles Lettres Papers, 1987) reappears with a small, coherent, impeccably composed little tragicomedy whose only debility is that the ground it stakes out is well-worn. It's the summer of 1963, and 16-year-old Michael is spending it, as usual, with his parents in their splendid old summer house on narrow Bone Point somewhere along the Atlantic coast, Connecticut, perhaps, though it isn't said. The summer might have been indistinguishable from any other if the family guest house hadn't been rented to the suavely cosmopolitan Mrs. Mertz (from a strain of far-back Russian nobility) and her 20-year-old daughter, the beautiful, enticing, and lively Zina, with whom Michael at once falls in love. A simple enough happenstance, and all might have moved forward through a youthful summer of ephemeral (however heartbreaking) romance if Michael hadn't accidentally begun finding out some things about his good-looking father (and unhappy mother) that he hadn't quite caught onto before. His father's overnight business trips back into town have had, for a long time, more than just business as their purpose, and the unhappiness Michael sees in his jealousy-tormented mother begins suddenly making a sense to him it never did before. Complications ensue of a kind that mustn't be told, this is a little book that needs certain of its secrets intact, though Simmons's opening sentence (In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father drowned) needn't be one of them. How that drowning occurred, and why and when, and what Michael's part in it was, or Zina's,won't be said here, but what must be remarked on is Simmons' way, from start of summer to end, of carryingthe reader along with a limpid clarity and gracefully articulated telling that are pleasures of their own. A little saga of adolescence that, even if not new, is a perfectly-cut gem of its kind.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The Sandbar
In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father drowned.
For one week in late June a sandbar formed half a mile out in the ocean. We couldn't see it, but we knew it was there because waves were breaking on it. Each day at low tide we expected it to show through. A bar had never formed that far out, and we wondered if it would stick. If it did, the water near shore would be protected and calmer, and we could move our boat, the Angela, in front of the house instead of keeping it in Johns Bay, on the other side of Bone Point. The swimming of course would change, it would be like bay swimming, and the surf casting would be ruined.
Father and I used to fish off the shore for king, weak, blues, and bass. The bass gave the best fight and were the best eating. We pulled in a lot of sand sharks too, small, useless things we threw back. Sometimes we went for real sharks, with a big hook, too heavy to cast. We'd fix on a mackerel steak, and I'd swim out with the hook and drop it to the bottom. I did this even when I was small, except then I'd float out on my inner tube, drop the hook, and Father would pull me in with a rope. Mother didn't like this, even though we did it only when the water was calm. Once we got a hundred-pound hammerhead shark, the strangest fish I ever saw. It had a head like a sledgehammer, with eyes on the ends. People said it was a man-eater, but Father said it wasn't.
We caught stingrays too. If Father hooked one and I was up in the house, he'd shout and I'd run down with the gaff. Stingrays are broad, flat fish. When you get them near shore, in the shallow water, they can suck onto the bottom and you can't pull them in. You have to go out in high boots and work the gaff through them so that water gets in and breaks the suction. We caught rays five feet across. They have spiky tails that flail around and can give you a whack. Before you can push the gaff through the body you have to step on the tail and cut it off. They eat stingrays in some places, but we didn't.
I never went out with the gaff. Father wouldn't let me. He went out and I held the rod. Once, after Father had cut off the tail and worked the gaff through the body, the ray took off, gaff and all, and pulled me over. The reel was locked. I held onto the rod and was carried out to where Father was. He grabbed the rod from me, and by the time we got the ray in it was mostly dead. We cut it loose, and it floated out.
"Suppose I weren't here," Father said, "how long would you have held on, forever?"
"Yes," I said, and he squeezed my shoulder. I was seven that summer.
Bone Point was a special place. During World War I the government took it over for military purposes and again during World War II. After that it became a permanent federal reserve. In 1946 there were only a few houses. The agreement with the government was if you already had a house you could keep it for forty-five years, until 1991, but no new houses could be built. Mother and Father took over our house in 1948, the year I was born and the year Mother's father died. He had built the house in the early thirties, and Mother had spent her childhood summers there too.
Like me she was an only child. She claimed the house had been too big for them, just as she thought it was too big for us. Mother was a complainer. The house wasn't too big. I liked all that room and light. The first floor was full of windows and glass doors, and the porch went around the four sides. Her father had liked the light too, Mother said. She often said I reminded her of him, which pleased me because she had been so fond of him, but I felt I was more like Father. There weren't many things Father said or thought I didn't agree with.
The furniture was all from Grandfather's time, and everything was large. For instance, there was a wicker couch in the living room that Father could lie on one end of, reading, with me at the other end, and we'd only overlap from the knees down. My bedroom was big enough for my doublesize bed with plenty of space left over. Blackheart, my dog, always slept with me, and we never got in one another's way. Every September we'd have to adjust when we moved back to town, where my bed was ordinary size.
Although after a week we couldn't actually see the bar, its presence got plainer every day. Complete waves were breaking on it.
"Want to swim out?" Father said.
It was as if he had read my mind.
"The tide is out," he said. "We can rest on the bar when we get there. On the way back the tide will be coming in and carry us along. What do you say?"
We were both good swimmers. Father used the crawl for general purposes. I did the backstroke, which is slower but not so tiring, and I liked looking up at the sky when I swam. Is there anything better than your body in the water and your mind in the sky? Whenever we swam together, because he was faster, Father would pull ahead, flip over, dive, stay down, come up, and fool around till I caught up. He was a regular porpoise.
I didn't think he should be doing it this time. We were heading half a mile straight out to sea, and he was using up his energy. Then two hundred yards out I knew we had miscalculated. We were moving too fast. It wasn't ebb tide, as Father had thought. The tide was still going out and speeding us to the bar. Every day the tide is an hour later. Today we had started out at noon, and I remembered that the previous day low tide had been at noon. Now low tide wouldn't be for an hour. I told Father.
"It's okay. We can wait on the bar before we swim back."
He didn't seem worried, but he didn't fool around anymore either.
When we reached the bar we found the water was deeper than we had expected. Father could stand with his mouth above water, but I couldn't. He tried holding my hand so the tide wouldn't take me farther out, but this pulled him off his feet. I had to swim just to hold my place.
"We can't rest," he said. "We'll have to go back. You mustn't panic. Do you understand?"
"Do you want me to help you?"
"I'll panic if you have to help me."
It was hard getting in. What kept us going was knowing that the tide against us was weakening. The question was, would the tide wear out before we did?
On the beach, figures stood watching us. As we got closer to shore and I knew we would make it I flipped over on my stomach and waved to Mother. I got a mouthful of water. Blackheart was there, along with the two people who were renting the guesthouse and their dog. It took us twenty-five minutes to get in, where it had only taken ten to get out.
Father and I lay exhausted on the beach for a long time. The two dogs sniffed us to see if we were alive. Mother held my hand. She was furious with Father. The two renters, who had just moved into the guesthouse, stayed with us. Mrs. Mertz was Mother's age. Her daughter, Zina, even upside down, was beautiful. Her eyes and hair were brown, her skin was a lighter brown, and her lips were purple. They seemed to be carved. She kept hugging and stroking her dog, as if it had been in danger instead of us. Then she touched my cheek, out of curiosity, I thought. I fell in love with Zina upside down.
After dinner that evening, Father motioned me to follow him outside. We walked to the water's edge, not saying much.
He wanted to look at the water, I thought, or get away from Mother, who wasn't speaking to him. The day had been bright and clear. Now the air was thick and damp, and a chill wind came off the ocean, turning it choppy.
"I thought for a moment out there you were going to leave me," I said.
"I wouldn't do that. Why did you think that?"
"It was just a thought."
"Would you have left me?" Father said.
"Well, that's good," he said and put his arm around my shoulder. Whenever he did that I felt he loved me.
We walked back to the house. Mother was building a fire.
"Return to the scene of the crime?" she said. She was getting over it. We played Monopoly before going to bed. The wind shifted, and a nor'easter came up during the night. It lasted three days, and afterward the sandbar was gone.
Copyright © 1998 by Charles Simmons