Down East 2013 ©
Sex, Drugs & Blueberries (Maine Misadventures, Buckfield; trade paperback; 210 pages; $14) — cute title, right? From a glance at the comic-style cover by Portland artist Patrick Corrigan, you figure you’re in for a zany summer romp through postmodern Maine, madcap and sun-drenched, something like vintage Tom Robbins, only with far Down East standing in for the hippie Northwest.
Well, hold on, fella. What you’ve got here is something stranger, scarier, and more honest-to-God real, all at once. In the course of a scant two hundred pages, first-time novelist Crash Barry spirits you away on a reckless, drug-fueled, decidedly un-magical mystery tour of the easternmost county in the United States, a place of great scenic beauty paired with crushing economic hardship. Washington County is like no place else, and Barry nails it like no other writer I’ve seen.
The story goes like this: One Benjamin Franklin, age thirty-seven, erstwhile front man of a Portland-based emo band “that almost (could have, should have) made it big,” decamps with his lovely poet wife, Monica, to an end-of-the-world place called Goose Island. Their plan, he explains, is to “save cash so we can buy ten acres, build a little house, have a big garden.” But this textbook back-to-the-land fantasy collides with the hard fact that cash is hard to come by, let alone save, in a community with 30 percent unemployment. In a last-ditch gambit to make ends meet, Ben takes a seasonal job raking blueberries. The work turns out to be harder, the pay worse, his co-workers crazier, and the ensuing complications more exciting and dangerous than anything he could have imagined.
Ben’s crewmates on this voyage into the dark heart of Down East include a Native American giant living large on an insurance settlement, his two — count ’em — comely college-age girlfriends, the second- or third-most dysfunctional white trash family in the universe, a long-suffering blueberry farmer clinging to a bankrupt tradition, and a middle-school thugsta called Hip-Hop. Such a motley crowd could easily come off as just so many caricatures, but I promise you, each one is drawn in utterly convincing detail. You suspect they’re real — how could anyone make them up? — despite an authorial disclaimer to the contrary. Either way, they could only thrive, if that’s the word, in the specialized and under-studied habitat of way Down East. It’s as though Barry has invented here a new micro-genre: fictional anthropology.
The story has roughly the feel of a homemade video, the kind that features long, unedited shots captured by a weaving, hand-held camera. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, if what you’re seeing is raw, artless footage or a scene so cunningly staged, with such spot-on performances, that it has all the grit and texture of real life. Often I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel, a work of fiction, not an actual, first-person chronicle of one man’s Maine summer gone horribly awry. Not one sentence in Sex, Drugs & Blueberries has a composed or literary feel to it. And I mean this as high praise; no less an authority than James Joyce declared that the greatest achievement of an artist is to stand outside his creation, invisible, “refined out of existence.” In this throat-grabbing debut, Barry has accomplished that.
So who is Crash Barry, anyway? If the first name is self-chosen, it is singularly apt. The tersely worded author bio at the end of the book suggests that he has personally done at least half the things that are legally permissible in Maine, occupation-wise. He is said to be currently living “in the hills of western Maine.” Is that small-press newspeak for “teaching creative writing at UMF.”? This being a book review rather than investigative journalism, I will leave that terrifying possibility for others to explore.
Lastly, a word of caution. I loved this book — but then, I’m not the sort of person who objects to, or even really notices, the kind of spicy vocabulary that renders Barry’s prose all but unquotable in a family-oriented magazine. If you object to, say, The Sopranos, you should leave this volume on the shelf. Otherwise, have at it. I guarantee, you’ll never feel quite the same about blueberries (or sex, or OxyContin) ever again.