Thursday, July 07, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 480 pages
• Publisher: Washington Square Press, September 13, 2011
• Price: $15.00
• ISBN-10: 1439198861
• ISBN-13: 978-1439198865

Since I met the author, Dominic Smith, in 2006 for an interview in Austin, Texas, to talk about his then newly published first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre—I was working on an article for the alumni magazine of a Michigan liberal arts college—I have been enthralled with his work. Not a chance that I would miss any of his books. And by now, there are three.

Bright and Distant Shores is Smith’s third novel, and it will be available September 2011. I rocked on my heels in glee when my advance reading copy arrived. Would it meet my high expectations? His first two novels (The Beautiful Miscellaneous was his second) received bountiful critical acclaim.

Smith’s awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great News Writers Program. It also received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Smith's second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was optioned for a film by Southpaw Entertainment and was a pick for Booklist Editors' Choice.

I settled in to be immersed, and I quickly would be. Bright and Distant Shores has depth and length and breadth in all senses of these concepts. The story unfolds to rise high on the skyscrapers of Chicago in 1897 and sails far on the high seas to land on South Pacific islands, from one kind of exotica to another, from that which is thought of as “civilized” to that which has been called “savage,” even as the two mix and meld.

Hale Gray, president of Chicago First Equitable, yearns to thump his chest atop his skyscraper, the tallest building at that time on the Chicago skyline. To bring customers to his insurance business and to gain notoriety in the city, he bankrolls a ship to take Owen Graves and a colorful crew, including his son Jethro, on a voyage to bring back artifacts from faraway places—along with “savages.” This is Gray’s scheme to attract crowds to his business. He plans to set up a display of sorts on the top of his skyscraper where the natives will live in full view of the hoped-for crowds.

Smith has said that the idea for his novel came from a press clipping about a similar scheme in 1897, when a group of Inuit were brought to the American Museum of National History in New York to create a living public display. The Inuit soon became ill of diseases to which their systems were not accustomed, and all of them eventually, tragically, died. The scenario haunted Smith enough to become the seed of the idea for Bright and Distant Shores.

From that seed grew what so well thrives under Smith’s pen: the finest of literary storytelling. The book tells the story of the voyage of richly colored characters, so real we can smell their stink rise from the pages, see their spit on the rims of their beer glasses, rock in our armchairs along with the gales that fill their ship sails, and blush with shame at their treatment of “savages” who, in fact, speak a scholarly English and are far more civilized than the men who lure them overseas for gaping crowds.

“Owen and Jethro stood on the balcony where Baz Terrapin slouched against the railing, big-knuckled and half naked, a white towel around his flaccid middle. He was drinking beer before noon and staring into the mire of his glass. ‘I prefer bottom-fermented beers, like to taste the yeast and hops …’ He took a swig from his jug of fizzing ale, still dripping from his daily plunge in the frigid bay. ‘Constitutional swim is what it is. Testicles like a pair of clams winking shut from the cold. Ah, the heart expands and pumps … gets as big as a Christmas ham. Ticker of a racehorse in here.’ He tapped at his rib cage, grinned. His enormous girth, coupled with the constellation of scars and moles spread across his torso, reminded Owen of the barnacled hull of an ancient, waterlogged ketch. He hunkered across the balcony, a hand spread against his paunch, thumb tucked into the edge of the wrapped towel.” (Page 115-116)

Turn the page open in whatever place in the book and the lines will all be this lush. If on occasion my affections for the characters waned, Smith’s artistry reined me in again. It was that artistry that kept me reading through the first half or so, words like plump fruit, irresistible, but he truly hit his stride in the second half, when rich writing combined fully with rich characterizations, so that I cared, too, about the people in the story and not just the unweaving of the tale.

If there is any small weakness to Smith’s writing, it is that—he can be so caught up in the literary artistry that his characters sometimes pale in comparison. I’m almost glad. One shouldn’t reach perfection so early in the run, after all. And Smith very nearly has.


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