Author: David W. Berner
San Francisco. The Shortish Project.
Price: $16.00 (paperback)
This story revolves around three main characters with writer Seamus Damp being the central figure. A Boston-born member of the baby boom generation, Damp achieves some commercial success writing novels in the U.S. which he parlays into a move to his mother country of Ireland. Ireland – the emerald isle steeped in legend and mysticism which has perfectly nurtured some of the world’s greatest poets. Damp has a past and most of it is troubled. His one and only marriage produced a son named Aiden who is deeply resentful of his once philandering father and embittered that he is bound by duty and not by love to attend to his ailing father’s fast-approaching final days. Seamus lives on a small island called The Rock off the coast of the mainland town of Dingle. Islands, by virtue of the fact that they are completely surrounded by water, are by their very nature isolated, and smaller islands in colder climates that are incapable of supporting much of a population are also lonely. The driving theme of this work is the subject of loneliness made evident when Berner references a well-known Charles Bukowski quote: “Beware those who seek constant crowds; they are nothing alone.”
Enter 26-year-old Maddie who comes to The Rock to work through the haunting memory that she unwillingly gave up a son to adoption as a teenager due to parental, to say nothing of societal pressure. Thankfully, this story does not adhere to the predictable plot line of the intellectually and academically attuned much older man getting the hot young chick so mesmerized by his braininess that she’s putty in his hands. Berner digs much deeper than that.
Seamus never wants to leave the island, while Aiden wants him off the island because it would make life easier for him, and Maddie isn’t really sure why she’s even there. Passages that most succinctly sum each character up are:
After the success of his books, he turned to poetry. His agent had tried to steer him away, attempting to talk him out of such nonsense (p. 6)…He was tired of his own voice, of the swirling emotions in his head and heart. Poets are annoying, he thought. And old poets are a pain in the ass (p.7).
He was who he was – an old man who wanted to be alone, prickly – even with himself – set in his ways, uncertain of the lure of happiness, believing that art was more important, distrusting of joy, suspicious of God (p. 14).
Aiden had been a young boy, in grammar school when his mother told him his father would not be living with them anymore. It wasn’t a surprise. His father hadn’t been around much. Aiden experienced his father’s moods, his frequent anger, brought on by what his mother sometimes called the Black Dog. It was Winston Churchill’s name for his bouts of depression, visiting him without warning, refusing to allow him to see how the rest of the world found joy, seeing only what the Black Dog could see(p.35).
Resolutions would never come neatly, nor should they, he believed that now. And there was no sense in wrestling with past hurts. They would remain What could be done now was to hide them away. Not to ignore them, but to give them a rest, to let them decay somewhere deep in a memory (p. 118).
When pain is shared, she thought, it’s understood (p. 67)…Maybe – she thought, leaning on the leg of the statue – the meaning of everything was not to be quietly, peacefully happy, but to live tumultuously, making your mistakes and owning them, celebrating them, embracing sorrow. That was living, accepting the stains and the cracks and chipped corners of the heart (p. 68).
Maddie had been to many places in her travels and did not cozy up with many people she didn’t know, only doing so when there was no other choice but to ask for help or assistance. Taking chances was not always the best plan if she wanted to keep journeying (p. 70).
At the outset of the story, Seamus is well aware that his health is failing but is determined to live in his Spartan home on the island as he struggles to write an epic poem on his ancient Royal KMN typewriter. With his faithful dog Olivia as his only companion he has ample time to see sunrises and sunsets, go on hikes, and bask in his solitude. Meanwhile, Aiden has procured a spot for his father in a nursing home close to his residence on the mainland, but it won’t be available until the fall. Seamus agrees with his son that this will be his last summer on the island but has no real intentions of following through; he is simply buying time and keeping Aiden at bay. Maddie is camping out on The Rock when a fateful driving storm intervenes in this standoff by laying waste to her small tent and forcing her to Seamus’s door to take refuge.
In Maddie, Seamus finds someone who is kind, nonjudgmental, helpful with household chores, and capable of helping him organize his manuscripts. In Seamus Maddie sees the father figure she never had, someone who recognizes the depth of her inner anguish, and a literary mentor that few ever get to experience. On the other, both find a reason to revere the island. For Aiden, of course, this is just more useless lollygagging that prolongs him tying things up in a tidy little bow which his father finally facilitates with his death. For the living, there is no real resolution save to say that Maddie resides in Seamus’s humble abode while Aiden seeks to find a buyer. She’s comfortable and in no real hurry to move on. There are lots of good books to read and no one to bother her as she works things out. Aiden will be relieved when the property finally sells because he needs the money but he is happy that Maddie is living there to maintain and protect the home until it does. It appears, that for his part, Aiden will grind on with his repressed life, and for her part, Maddie appears to be perfect fodder for an engaging sequel. And for my part, I certainly hope that Berner considers writing it.
Kudos to the publisher of this fine work. The Shortish Project strives to bring the shorter novel to the public’s attention. The New York literary agent’s sweet spot for most novels weighs in at 90,000 words, and anything over 110,000 words generally becomes classified as a “beach read” that typically gathers more sand than readers. A short novel hovers between 40,000 and 50,000 words, and anything that falls into the classification of being a novella that starts at 17,000 words and ends at 39,999 words. To me, Berner’s work feels and reads more like a novella than anything else.
Novellas are purposely pointed. The writing is more economical, more efficient, more closely aligned to the lyricism of poetry as opposed to anything that is preceded by the word “narrative,” whatever that is supposed to mean. There is no mucking around with the MFA 15-story beat formula that drags during the Act Two “fun and games” segment(20% to 50% of overall content) that genuflects at the altar of lusted after commercial success simply to satisfy the dictates of a preconceived word count before fading to the mediocrity and oblivion of the market share mentality that has doomed many a book to the remainder bin. In short, the novella is a sprint, not a marathon– it strives to get to the point by not blunting it with perpetual immersions into the cesspool of logorrhea. Many say that reading is dead. I say that most reading isn’t dead – it’s dull. In today’s fast-paced world of jump-frame advertisements and ten-second sound bites attention spans are at an all-time low. Brevity is the new beautiful, and in short, the beauty of the novella is that it actually gets read.
The Shortish Project seems destined to break some rules, and thank God it is. Rules are for the unattuned to blindly follow because they make their lives easier; and for the attuned to largely ignore because they make their lives immeasurably harder.
Seamus Damp lived outside the mainstream and couldn’t have cared less what they thought of him. He recognized that his primary purpose in life was his writing, particularly his poetry, and he fought mightily to stay alive long enough to contribute something of significance to the genre. There are as many definitions as to what poetry really is as there are poets, but most that engage in it are united in believing that at its heart it is a lonely endeavour, much like living on an isolated island.
…the island was like no other place in the world. It had shaped him, and Seamus, too, believed he had shaped it a little(P. 106).
David W. Berner has produced a gem here; a story that resonates with anyone who has struggled with the writing life because, believe me, there is no other craft that makes its practitioners feel as if they are living alone out on an island.