Harbor Lights

Harbor Lights

by Theodore Weesner

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Overview

Set in southern Maine, Harbor Lights follows the last weeks of lobster fisherman Warren Hudon's life. His character and passions shaped by the rough waters on which he spends his days, Warren has created a life of almost absolute isolation. But when he is diagnosed with rapidly developing cancer, he finds himself driven to make peace with his long-estranged wife, Beatrice, and their adult daughter, Marian. Told in restrained, evocative prose, Harbor Lights mesmerizes its readers with a tale of a marriage gone seriously awry and a man's growing rage that culminates in an act of passionate violence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802137647
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/28/2001
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 4.88(w) x 7.38(h) x (d)

About the Author

The late, great, Theodore (Ted) Weesner died in 2015. Known as the ‘Writer’s writer’ by the larger literary community, his novels and short works were published to great critical acclaim.

Born in Flint, Michigan, to an alcoholic father and teenage mother who abandoned him aged one, he spent a large part of his childhood in an unofficial foster home of an immobile woman of over five hundred pounds. This, however, gave him and his elder brother, Jack, a degree of freedom to explore and have a wide variety of childhood adventures. He nevertheless became introspective as a teenager, with a rebellious streak, which led to him not graduating from high school and also becoming involved in petty crime. Eventually returning to the care of his father, he finally took off on his own when he lied about his age and joined the Army aged seventeen.

It was the Army that finally had the influence previously lacking in Weesner’s life, and whist serving he earned a high school equivalency diploma, which on leaving allowed him to gain a place at Michigan State University and then an M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

His experiences in the Army also provided material for two of his later books, and others gained from his many years of teaching at the University of New Hampshire, and later Emerson College. Put together with his earlier life experiences, ample material was available to provide a background for his plots, once he had honed his writing skills, and his works never lost their air of reality and his inherent understanding of human behaviour.

His first novel, ‘The Car Thief’ was published in 1972 after excerpts had appeared in ‘The New Yorker’, ‘Esquire’ and ‘The Atlantic Monthly’. It was a coming-of-age tale that critics found ‘original, perspicacious and tender’. Joseph McElroy, in ‘The New York Times Book Review’, referred to it as ‘a story so modestly precise and so movingly inevitable that before I knew what was happening to me I felt in the grip of some kind of thriller’. In his obituary of Weesner, published in the ‘New York Times’ in June 2015, Bruce Weber stated that ‘like many a critically appreciated book …. it faded rather quickly from view. But it became famous in literary circles as a forgotten gem’. It has since had a second life, being re-published twice more and continues to grip readers of a new generation as well as remaining popular with those who were its contemporaries.

Again, Weesner’s later work did not always enjoy the immediate commercial success that might be expected of critically acclaimed work – to the sorrow of his fellow writers, and recognised by Weesner himself, who was acutely aware of the ‘neglected writer’ label – despite such plaudits as that of the novelist Stewart O’Nan, when speaking of ‘The True Detective’, and calling it ‘one of the great, great American novels’. This could be because his particular genre became crowded at the time of his writing, often by lesser authors who nonetheless achieved the publicity needed to produce success.

Indeed, as is the case with many great writers, an enhanced and wider appreciation of Theodore Weesner’s catalogue will undoubtedly grow following his departure from the scene.
His short works have previously been published in the ‘New Yorker’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Saturday Evening Post’, ‘Atlantic Monthly’ and ‘Best American Short Stories’. Likewise, his novels appeared in the ‘New York Times’, ‘The Washington Post’, ‘Harper’s’, ‘The Boston Globe’, ‘USA Today’, ‘The Chicago Tribune’, and ‘The Los Angeles Times’.

During his lifetime Weesner received the ‘New Hampshire Literary Award’ for Lifetime Achievement, whilst ‘The Car Thief’ won for him the ‘Great Lakes Writers Prize’, and ‘The True Detective’ was cited in 1987 by the American Library Association as a notable book of that year. He was also the recipient of ‘Guggenheim’ and ‘National Endowment for the Humanities’ awards.

A perfectionist, Theodore Weesner did meticulous research, and was never afraid of going back over and re-writing his work before publication, believing in the maxim ‘the great novel isn't written, it's rewritten’.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Warren

He turned his lobster boat upstream and gave her some speed, though not much. She was a '48 Jonesporter, a thirty-two footer, and she rode low in the stern and high in the bow. Her hull had been refinished yearly with fiberglass quality bottom paint, and in her lifetime her structure and pilothouse had been stripped and repainted eleven times. She remained a handsome boat and one of the oldest in service though decay was setting in with her, as it was with her owner, and Warren knew they both were doomed.

Seas were placid, and it was unseasonably warm for October. The pastures of harbor water were as thinly green as old mirrors, with fissures of air escaping fault lines here and there as if hissed from whales. Fishing boats passed soundlessly in the distance, and all around was the solitude that came with the livelihood of one man hauling traps within sight of land. Larger boats carrying radar and crews went far out and stayed weeks at a time, but were neither as solitary nor as philosophical as the one-man entities.

Lobstering and independence went hand in hand. Within a hundred yards of shore were depths over forty fathoms, and within the volume of black water along reefs and seaweed-draped valleys lay promises of treasure in forms of fish and crustacea, together with daily threats of death and discouragement. Questions were ever present for lobstermen: Can you stand the loneliness? What of the cold water on your hands, the smell of bait in your lungs, and rowing out before dawn in snow squalls, pouring rain, uncompromising walls of wind? What of your oilskins getting tangled and finding yourself pulled over the side? What of the times when lobsters aren't feeding, or when a glut is on the market? And your family — will they provide the support on land a lobsterman needs to succeed at sea? Why not trade some of that mean independence for a seat at the wheel of a backhoe, for wages, regular hours, the camaraderie of a factory with dry wooden floors, heated air, a candy machine? For coffee and talk with friends ... at least until a foreman came cracking the whip?

Why not trade the whole wet, risky business — as Warren had for eight years, not that long ago — for a civil service rating with the State Water Pollution Commission? Yes, for rancorous disputes with neighbors over lab readings and subsurface disposal pollutants. Yes, for that brown cap and labeled jacket he had been ashamed to wear in the presence of his wife, however rarely she looked his way.

Through no wish of his own Warren was coming in early today and had the Lady Bee riding an incoming tide at minimum power. All about was calm as the boat sliced a quiet V, and, resting against his jerry-built driver's seat, he gazed within as he kept the boat on course. He strove to be as even-tempered as the day itself and to keep his thoughts under control. For he was fifty-seven, his cough had grown chronic, and the threat of mortality had been intercepting his view for a string of months. He gazed into the breach now as the hull slapped the water like an opened hand and sent a spattering over the windshield and one side of his face. He couldn't help thinking how satisfying it would be to motor forever into the Indian summer horizon. What a dream it would be to pursue the horizon and leave his problems washing away in the suds.

He'd have to talk to Beatrice soon and explain what was happening. Her blatant affair had been hard to believe, but he had lived with it all these years and it was a fact of life. If there was a saving grace, it was that they lived in the same house, if not entirely as husband and wife, and saw each other, spoke to each other two or three times a week. Now this turn in the road — if his lungs proved malignant, as he knew they would. The thought of her living on, and of Virgil Pound being ever in her midst, touching her, lying in bed with her, set off Warren's lifetime of resentment every time he thought of it.

Dear Beatrice. Nearly all his life Warren had had thoughts of hurting her for the pain she had made him suffer. The thoughts surfaced as if on their own, though he never allowed them serious entry into his mind. Shooting, stabbing, choking. Suppressed fantasies of forcing her to submit. Compelling her to lower to her knees, to remove her clothes. Still, when the fantasies tried for center stage, he pulled a curtain down on his mind. He had gained some wisdom with age, and violating her was nothing he wanted to have on his conscience. Not with so little time left. She may have treated him badly, but he wouldn't be returning the favor. Taking the high road, at this time in his life, had become his only hope for peace of mind.

Warren had a string of traps just ahead and wasn't sure he would run them, though habit would make stopping hard to resist. Turning from traps along Outer South Banke was one thing, but crossing the harbor to Narrow Cove and motoring by a last string would be like passing his own child on the highway and looking ahead as if he hadn't seen her.

His strings held six traps each and were marked by buoys at each end plus a toggle buoy for each trap. Like charms on a Krylon bracelet, the traps lay where they settled on the bottom, and their locations would be changed if they failed to produce. When they produced well, when they fell not to lifeless muck but into lobster playgrounds and tenements within rocks and kelp, attempts were made to return them over and over to the same locations.

Throughout the years Warren had maintained fifty to seventy strings, three to four hundred traps in all, but had had difficulty in recent years keeping up with twenty strings, running half daily in the high season and exhausting himself doing so. Working ever more slowly, he had to pause, gasp, and gather strength to raise, clear, rebait, and return a plastic-coated wire trap to the cold, sloshing water. His grounds — a 700-yard stretch along Outer South Banke, twenty acres of seaweed-draped ledges and rocky valleys, plus the two-acre spit there in Narrow Cove, near where he moored his boat — had been his father's grounds and mooring site before him and were his as if legally deeded. If another fisherman, or a ragpicker — some airline pilot or professor wanting to impress visitors with a crate of lobsters for dinner — put out traps in a lobsterman's area, the intruder would be subjected to a warning and the surrendering of his catch or, more likely, to having his trap lines cut in his absence. Remaining obstinate, an interloper could count on having his boat cut loose in the dead of night, even introduced to some bullet holes and the havoc a half-sunken vessel left behind, though instances of lobstermen using rifles and pistols were rare. Warren knew of maybe six boats burned or put on the bottom over four decades and but three armed assaults, each an occasion of a ragpicker insisting on keeping a catch he'd taken and needing the crack of a rifle close to the hull to see that no matter legal niceties, a lobsterman's grounds were not subject to negotiation.

Narrow Cove, northwest between Gerrish Island and the mainland, was coming into view, and Warren had to decide whether to pull his last string or move on to the Co-op with what he had — an embarrassing half-dozen three-quarter pounders. The last string represented the call of duty, of being a highliner rather than a dub in the community of lobstermen. Creatures in traps would survive weeks without being harvested, but their lives were finite and crowded traps were inhospitable to newcomers. Lobsters and crabs cannibalized in fights to the death, and the tables had to be reset twice or more a week in season if a profit was to be realized.

There came one of Warren's familiar green-and-white striped buoys breaking the surface, and, helpless against the old pull, he cut the Lady Bee's engine to neutral and let her sink — belly toward the bobbing pin with its balancing stick. He had accumulated some strength by then and proceeded to work slowly, one step at a time. He used a metal hook to snare the line and lifted the rope to within reach of his left hand. He had not given in to coughing, though he was expending breath and strength rapidly, and he held for the moment against the rising and falling of his broad, thirty-foot boat. Seas remained calm, but for the waves he'd created. Bent close to the chilled water, hands wet, the air temperature had to be in the sixtiess, and the warm October day was growing warmer and more thought-provoking. The American League play-offs were under way — in New York or Baltimore, he wasn't sure — and for a moment he glimpsed himself in the solitary long-ago, when baseball had been an afternoon more than an evening game, and his summertime work on swaying salt water had been joined by announcers narrating balls and strikes, hits and runs from Fenway Park in Boston, just fifty miles south by southwest by way of the sea.

Sensing an accumulated body of strength, he readied for the next step. Okay, he told himself, and, reaching a rubber-gloved hand to grip the rope, backed off half a step, lifted the dripping line with both hands, and placed it on the snatch block he had long ago connected to the Lady Bee's hydraulic hauler and straight-six Chevy engine.

He paused again, gathering added breath and strength. No breeze was moving over the water, leaving the pastures free of ripples, and he knew it was one of those days when people on land would be using terms like glorious and gorgeous, and conniving to be out in the intoxicating air. Well, at least he'd had an outdoor life to both endure and enjoy, he thought. Every day he had tasted air and sky; his pipe and cigarette smoking may have diluted taking in the elements, but even that combination had been satisfying until the time came, some months back, to commence paying the tobacco piper.

He continued to pause and, staring once more over the horizon, still did not push the button that in its engaging of the wheel would bring line and seawater spinning and, in a moment, the first trap breaking the surface and draining in a rush. How could any wife do to a husband what she had done to him? Why had he settled into living with her infidelity when he could have made another life for himself?

Rested, suppressing his coughing with his fist, Warren managed for the moment to glimpse the bounty of the sea, and with the anticipation which had thrilled him from the first time, as a seven-year-old, he hoisted a trap to the light of day. The thrill of fishing — you never knew what a trap might contain: A five-pounder the size of a first baseman's glove? A three-foot sand shark thrashing within the cage? Five or six three-pounders in one trap, as in his father's stories? An albino to deliver to the fish biologists upstream at the university's Great Bay Estuarine Lab — or maybe a four-inch-thick flounder to take home and slice into filets for dinner and the freezer? The unknown sea. He had pulled traps all his life, and here in the bottom of the ninth, its eternal appeal had only grown deeper and more mysterious.

The Lady Bee kept putting up bubbles in neutral, and, line in hand, holding his own against the pull between boat and water, Warren proceeded to the first trap. The Lady Bee's hauler was positioned at the widest part of the boat's pumpkin seed shape and, taking in a breath, he pressed the button that started rope and salt water spinning. Subconsciously measuring time, he watched for the wire mesh to break through, ready to hit the clutch and bring the trap to rest on the railing.

The small climax occurred in a rush of water, and there followed the old disappointment of scanning the contents: some crabs and three undersized juveniles, a seeder loaded with eggs, maybe one keeper. His thought at the moment was that all he had ever wanted was to have her as his wife and to be a good husband, and that his inability to do so was a splinter in his heart he was trying yet to accommodate. Now this stupid cancer, sending tentacles into his lungs and throat. If there was a God in heaven — as he had been taught to believe — what kind of justice was this for a man already cheated by life for thirty years?

Exhaling small breaths, Warren began processing the catch, tossing back crabs and juveniles. Lifting the seeder by her carapace — confirming that her tail was notched, probably by him — he settled her to the surface on her back that she might cascade into the deep and not lose eggs by being thrown. Returning seeders was the law of lobstering, that fishing might proceed indefinitely. Warren knew all about nurturing the sea and about life being unfair, and this latest blow to his well-being kept coming up anew. Where to from here? How could he get through to her with this added clock ticking in his ear?

Beatrice

At home on Kittery Point she was getting ready for work. A woman of independent means, she ran her own store, and her morning routine was one of charging herself like a battery for the day. She liked kidding with herself throughout the process, but had her routine down and meant to leave the house looking good and feeling right. Each day was a minor struggle, however insignificant the obstacles might appear to others to be. Being a woman was obstacle number one, Beatrice thought, and maybe one through ten. Did men have any idea of the games women had to play?

Leaning to her bedroom mirror, Beatrice upflapped her chin with her fingers, all for naught, she imagined. She slapped her modest thighs and, over her shoulder, tried for a view of a butt some might say was pretty cute for a fifty-five-year-old, but which seemed to her to be on an eternal mission to smother any seat with which it came into contact. Staying pretty and a little sexy was a full-time job in itself, and stepping from the mirror for a more detached view, she said to herself, Come on, you're not so bad. Just be vigilant. Think of the blubber and wrinkles that overwhelm so many. No sweets, sauces, rationalizations. Think how your chin will sag if you let them have their way! Be vigilant! Savor vegetables! Savor sweat! Thus Beatrice's version of a morning pep talk — motivating herself to be in charge of her self and the day.

Extracting a silk kerchief from her scarf drawer, she stuck it in the breast pocket of a camel's hair blazer she had placed on her wooden dressing tree. The weightless kerchief added a flair she wanted — autumn leaves on a field of beige — and the walnut dressing tree was an English import she used each morning as a prop in preparing her schedule. Skirt, blouse, shoes. Appointments and calls. Revisions were easy: brighter shoes, lighter blouse, wider belt. Something a little French, or, if sun and season were right — as they appeared to be today — a touch of Vermont with its colors peaking. A steady smile to offset her sinking old face — if only the steady smile did not begin to hurt after two minutes.

The kerchief helped, and her spirits were getting on track. Just before daybreak she had suffered another guilt dream, but now she felt high-spirited, a sensation that had been surfacing often lately. Was it dues paid, or a product of growing older? She felt young, in any case, and not clueless but the best kind of young: aware. She had only to remain vigilant in diet and outlook, in taking care of business. Keep going forward, she told herself. Don't let the past drag you down like barnacles on a boat.

Sometimes Beatrice made her wardrobe selections the night before and positioned an outfit and shoes on the way to bed — one of the acts her daughter, Marian, called her "Martha Stewart gene." Then, in the morning, sipping coffee and making up, as she was doing now, she considered the outfit and once more previewed her day's agenda. (Scandia rep at three, Windows tutorial at four, but mainly, at ten this morning, a coffee "talk" at a local business college that — let's face it — had dominated her thoughts all week. Then lunch as usual with Virgil, and, finally, ad copy dropped off at the Herald before five. A coming and going day. An okay day, once she got through giving that talk, the thought of which kept making her seem to float with stage fright.)

Red shoes? She imagined the business school girls being fun and wanted her outfit to convey a mix of quality and pizzazz, independence and femininity — something to express the person she had long been struggling to be. If she could have them thinking "that's how I want to be when I'm her age," anything else they got from her would be gravy.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Harbor Lights"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Theodore Weesner.
Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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