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Cape Cod, that sandy, wind-swept enchantress, has captivated many writers, among them Henry David Thoreau, whose descriptions of that "wild, rank place" have fired the imaginations of not one but many generations. Among Thoreau's literary progeny is David Gessner, but this book goes far beyond the naturalist's focus on the transcendent beauty of the landscape. Rather, Gessner combines his deeply felt sense of place with observations of the Cape's people and with insights about his family, himself, and his art. In a series of interconnected personal essays, he explores his response to his own recently cured cancer and to the lung cancer that is killing his father. Issues of life and death intertwine with images of a land that Gessner finds curiously healing: "Here thoughts are swamped by the smells, sounds, and sights of place. The gentle hypnotic lapping of waves. A prehistoric cormorant on a slick black rock. The delicate lacework of sea grass roots breaking down through a ledge of sand."
Gessner's introspection during a year spent writing in the family's weathered cottage portrays another struggle, too. For a young writer just beginning his career, such mighty literary forebears as Thoreau can be imposing, if not paralyzing. Yet the process of sorting through and making peace with the memories of his genetic father gives Gessner the power to declare artistic independence from his literary one. Seeing "something tremendously heroic" about his father's determination to perform mundane tasks in the face of imminent death brings Gessner to realize that "our minds have minds of their own. Reality is fabulous, yes, but we also crave something more. Symbol, perhaps. Meaning." In the end, what Cape Cod comes to mean for Gessner is not just freedom from the past, but love and nobility in the face of death.
Gessner came home from the Rockies, back to the place where he grew up, after a tangle with cancer. Forget broccoli and phytochemicals. To ward off cancer, he knows his route: "I'll take salt water." The ocean, he believes, will cleanse him, body and soul, but nearly everywhere in this collection of essays—from his anger over the inorganic, hubristic new Cape architecture to a marsh walk while under the influence of psychotropics to a spirited defense of the political cartoonist's pamphleteering art—decay and death insistently preside in the "stench of the sea," a death in the family, the very title of the book. There are moments when Gessner displays a witty, light touch, as in his preoccupation with Thoreau, who pops up again and again, among the stinkhorns, on hikes, beside Gessner's writing table, goading, educating, inspiring. But for the most part, Gessner is a brassy writer, four-square to his issues—environment, literature, family—subjective and romantic in a quietly effective way, for his personal obsessions translate well into universals, as when he witnesses the last months of his father's life, this time cancer claiming its quarry. His father was very much his own man, fastidious by day, refulgent by night after the wine went to work. It is an unflinching portrait Gessner paints of his parent, though also the only time in the book when he allows notes of tenderness and understanding to color his judgments.
It must have been an uneasy year on the Cape for Gessner; if this book is any reflection, it couldn't have been a year better spent.