Posted Monday, June 23rd, 2003
Linda Greenlaw, My New Best Friend
Linda Greenlaw is my new best friend.
She replaces Sarah Vowell in this capacity. I’d met Sarah when I read her essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot; I knew our friendship was meant to be when in the essay “The Strenuous Life” she described learning about Teddy Roosevelt: “He would tell us how this brave, tough hunter and soldier was born a wheezing New York City four-eyes. ‘All little Teddy Roosevelt could do…was stay in bed and read.’ ‘Ew,’ said my sister. Sigh, said I. Getting to stay in bed and read all day was what I was shooting for.” I too was a confirmed bookworm who loved lazing around with a novel. Moreover, Sarah expressed opinions I agreed with, only in a much more clever manner than I ever could. But I’ve just moved to a college town in Southern Indiana where I don’t know anyone; perhaps the shock of finding myself in this hidden (and hiding) pocket of the Midwest has made Sarah’s very definite opinions on national politics and art seem a shade less relevant. Sarah is, above all, clear about where she stands; I needed a friend that would speak to my confused state of mind. Besides, Sarah never returns my calls.
My meeting with Linda was serendipitous. I was discontentedly browsing the New in Paperback tables in a large chain bookstore. I have lots of time to read these days but perhaps due to my anxious and unsure state of mind (a result of living in a place where I don’t know anyone) I’ve been disappointed with almost every book I’ve picked up. For example, I withdrew Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections from the local library just last week. I knew I was supposed to find his portrayal of a staid, closed-minded elderly Midwestern couple funny but it’s hard to laugh at other people (even imaginary ones) when you are feeling particularly unsure of yourself. Thus I found myself searching for a more affirming read in the chain bookstore.
Every book on the New in Paperback tables looked…wrong, somehow. Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, which at a different time may have struck me as a fresh and irreverent perspective on American society, seemed arrogant and unscientific. A new collection of short stories by Ha Jin intimated themes reminiscent of those he explored in his last novel, Waiting, in which a man waits twenty years to divorce his estranged wife and marry his lover, only to regret his choice in the end. Although I’d thoroughly enjoyed Jin’s portrayal of Communist China in Waiting I suspected his stories would do little to ameliorate my loneliness. I saw a new paperback copy of The Hours, a book I’d enjoyed three summers ago, but its cover photo of the stars of the movie based on the book exasperated me. I’d found the movie to be a pale replica of the book and this use of the latter as a marketing tool for the former reeked of sellout. Anyway, I understood that a novel exploring the many dimensions of depression was probably not the best reading material choice for me at the moment.
That’s when I saw her. She was smiling up at me from the cover of a narrow volume, cheek dimpled, hair tangled. I picked up The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island and learned from the back cover that the author, Linda Greenlaw, was a former swordfisherman who had been featured in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and the film by the same name. She had returned to her childhood island home to make a new life for herself as a lobsterman and was forced to reevaluate “everything she thought she knew about life, luck, and lobsters.” I’m not a huge George Clooney fan and my upbringing in Missouri has left me deficient in the fishing department, but as someone who was reevaluating everything I knew about graduate school, information technology, and Southern Indiana, I thought I might appreciate Linda’s memoir.
The Lobster Chronicles details one particularly eventful lobstering season, in which the lobsters themselves fail to materialize, the inhabitants of Linda’s island home contemplate engaging in a “gear war” with inshore fishermen encroaching on their historical fishing grounds, and Linda’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with this narrative of the season’s occurrences Linda introduces us to some of the quirkier island inhabitants. These include the Island Boys, two hapless handymen more likely to damage the roof of Linda’s gear shed than to actually complete repairs of any kind, and Rita, a cranky old lady known for “borrowing” anything she can get her hands on and who incites Linda’s parents to duck behind the couch and pretend to not be home when she comes around.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of The Lobster Chronicles is Linda’s internal journey over the course of the season. She makes no secret of the fact that one of her goals in moving back to the Island was to marry and have children; she notes at one point that “My older sister, Rhonda, once referred to [her first book] The Hungry Ocean as a book-length personal ad, and will no doubt view this as another one.” This goal eludes her, largely because her island supports less than fifty full time residents, most of whom she is related to in some way. She has her prospects: a Martha’s Vineyard charter boat operator she derisively refers to as Charter Boy and two inseparable brothers from New Jersey (to marry one of them she’d have to marry them both). But a compelling romance continues to elude her, and as the lobsters continue to hide from her traps, Linda is forced to wonder if returning to the Island was the right choice.
Linda is a frank and engaging writer; she approaches her difficulties with unfailing good humor. In one particularly memorable scene, the lobsters start biting after months of lying low. She exults, “My world was right again. I loved my life… I thought my father must certainly have been convinced that I was bipolar. And then I thought, Who isn’t? Who doesn’t fully feel and enjoy changes and swings of mood? I supposed it was only a matter of degree that separated those who were certifiable from rank amateurs. Bipolar? Yes! And at this moment I was enjoying some time on the northern pole.” It was here, when Linda embraced her own moodiness, that I knew we would be close. Her matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her fragile emotional state – an acknowledgement that never devolves into self-pity – was the approach I was seeking for myself. Here was a woman who could make a major change in her life, question the change when events didn’t go her way, and still not devolve into a whining complainer. If Linda could embrace her own bipolar tendencies and accept her difficulties then I could too.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my choice in friends. I’m aware that Linda is a famous author who lives in Maine whereas I am a not famous IT trainer in Indiana. And yes, I am actively seeking an actual person to eat lunch with or go for a run with. But in the meantime I feel better knowing someone like Linda is out there, being a bit of a kindred spirit if not an actual friend. And besides, The Lobster Chronicles is a great read. I’d say that’s my unbiased opinion, despite my relationship to the author.
The Lobster Chronicles, by Linda Greenlaw. Paperback. Published by Hyperion; 238 pages; ISBN 0786885912. $13.95.
Related Links:The Lobster Chronicles
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Tuesday, June 24th, 2003 at 8:25 AM
I wish I made friends this easily.