Down East 2013 ©
The world is going to end, and John Thibodeau, Jr., born and raised in a Maine town some sixty miles from Bangor, is the only one who knows it. He has received precise information about this event while in utero: at exactly 3:44 p.m. EST on June 15, 2010, the earth will be hit by a comet with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs and then nothing will exist. The Voice that imparts this knowledge to Junior is curious about what he will do with it. Will it help him answer the age-old question: does anything we do matter? “It is our hope,” the Voice tells him, using its customary royal plural, “that with knowledge of the epic disaster to come and the advantage of our continued assistance, you will have greater success at answering this question than those who have come before you. And we wish you good luck.” So begins Ron Currie, Jr.’s smart, quirky, roller-coaster novel Everything Matters! (Viking Press, New York, New York; paperback; 304 pages; $25.95), whose title alone would seem to be the answer to the question the Voice raises. Or maybe not.
Everything Matters!, which won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison M. Metcalf Award this spring, is told by a dazzling array of first- and second-person narrators. It’s a curious hybrid — Carolyn Chute meets Doris Lessing, in her apocalyptic stage, meets Dr. Who. It careens out of categories, and, once you pick it up, (“First, enjoy this time!” the Voice orders), it’s pretty hard to put down. After all, we expect to be here on June 15, 2010, and (knock on wood) on June 16 as well. Currie’s taken a big risk, setting a date for the apocalypse. What’s he going to pull out of his hat?
Currie was born and raised and still lives in Waterville, and he’s strongest in this novel, his second after God Is Dead, when he’s writing about Maine and the Thibodeau family, whose youngest child is brilliant and possibly schizophrenic. Each of the family members is perfectly drawn. Junior’s father, for example, a sober, silent man, gave up a major league baseball career to serve in the army, and works two jobs to support his family. He knows his life could have been very different, and he has regrets, but still knows how to take pleasure in simple things. When Junior’s Gifted and Talented teacher remarks that his son, at age five, is “preoccupied with apocalypse,” and begins to mention the reasons why that might be, he notes, “I suspected we were talking less about my son and more about Mrs. Collins’ politics . . . I stopped listening to her. The point had been made, after all.”
Junior meets Amy in the Gifted and Talented class and falls in love. Amy comes from an abusive family, but she “seems immune from the rage that’s been passed from fist to fist.” Still, she has no sympathy for crazy people, and Junior, though “the fourth smartest person in the history of the world,” is not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. When he tells Amy about the end of the world, she breaks up with him, and his life goes downhill from there.
All this rings true. But Currie has other fish to fry, and when Junior, now drinking himself into serious alcohol addiction, leaves Maine for Chicago, the novel takes a sharp turn into farce. Junior gets involved in blowing up a federal building. Next we know he’s in a secret NSA lock-up in Bulgaria agreeing to help the government save the human race by designing a spaceship to remove the population of the earth to another planet before the comet strikes. The Voice has no comment on this sudden conversion to super-heroism. Like everything else from this point on in the novel, it just happens.
We’re on the roller-coaster now, and the tone of the novel swings crazily from the absurd to the painfully sad. Once Junior is offered the chance to save the world, he comes to believe that finally what he does matters. At last he’s like everyone else; he has something to live for. What he learns, of course, is that being like everyone else has its drawbacks. Hope is risky. You can suffer. You can lose. By the time June 15, 2010, rolls around, as it inevitably will, Currie has put Junior through the wringer. And he’s not done with him yet.
Everything Matters! may get a bit didactic in its final pages, may even bring to mind Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but its message is sincere. The clock is ticking! The end is coming! Better save the date.
Savoring sailing takes on a whole new meaning with Windjammer Cooking: Great Recipes from Maine’s Windjammer Fleet (Seapoint Books, Kittery Point, Maine; paperback; 154 pages; $27) by Jean Kerr and Spencer Smith. Part cookbook, part armchair travel, this collection of more than sixty recipes takes you below deck aboard twelve vessels of Maine’s windjammer fleet. Each chapter is devoted to a different windjammer — and their captains’ and passengers’ favorite eats. From citrus cilantro salmon and wine aboard the Stephen Taber to black and white chunk cookies from the Isaac H.
Evans, the recipes are simple and sometimes creatively cooked. For example, the steamed brown bread from the Grace Bailey is cooked in a coffee can surrounded by simmering hot water. With full color photos, this cookbook will have you craving not only the food but also the sights from aboard Maine’s iconic fleet.