“It all comes down to that fumbling around to find someone. It seems we’re all born with this longing; we’re made to think that someone exists for each of us. So we knock around, dodging various obstacles like bad families and wars and accidents and illnesses, searching and hoping.” With these words, Jim Nichols pieces together in a wonderful nutshell, the essence of his new book, Closer All the Time.
A novel told in a short story format, Nichols deftly stiches characters together in Baxter, Maine, a river town very reminiscent of the small town Nichols grew up in. The place of Baxter provides a fixed point both on the map and in time for Nichols and the people we as readers meet. It is small-town Maine in the years after World War II, and is a vital element to all the stories in providing that foundation for the cohesive bond to exist between characters story by story.
Nichols is no stranger to readers, as his prolific short story work has appeared in many publications and garnered a number of Pushcart Prize nominations. His two previously published novels, Slow Monkeys and Hull Creek have also received critical acclaim, with Hull Creek finishing as a runner-up for the 2012 Maine Book Awards for Fiction. Prior to the writing life, Nichols has worked as a taxi driver, bartender, pilot and ticket dispatcher and even in the fields picking fruit. He also has spent much of his youth and adult life growing up in small town Maine, which, combined with his work experiences, infuses his characters with that real, down home flavor, which easily resonates with the reader.
Told in thirteen loosely connected stories centered and titled on a specific character, the stories cover a multitude of life experiences, decisions made, regrets, bad habits, friendship and loss, duty, and the constant reminder that a place can impact and shape a life as much if not more than human contact can.
One of the central characters is Johnny Lunden who appears quite often throughout the book and literally changes for the reader as time moves on, growing as a person, flaws and all. In the opening story, Johnny is trying for a new start, struggling to keep it together and not get back into the habit of alcohol and bad decisions. He almost makes it.
In the opening story, titled Johnny and Early, two old friends, tethering a father son sort of friendship, are seen going up river in a small outboard. They silently move up river to a restricted spot where they know the flats are full of clams just waiting to be plucked from the soft mud. The act of poaching and a close encounter with getting caught bring the two men together. But in reality, they are both there for different solitary reasons and in the end break the law and find a lost piece of themselves while doing it.
The other stories can certainly stand alone on their own merit, but it is the essence of Johnny and his appearance in a number of stories that keeps the novel tight and enjoyable. We see him as the handsome older man in the eyes of a young girl trying to get in and out of her teenage years and as a father on the mend with a son he does not know, and again with Early, only this time no laws will be broken.
Throughout the book Johnny appears to be in a constant state of departure, a departure from the town and also from himself, slowly moving away from the people and the town by way of his erratic behaviors and his dependency on alcohol. It is also about him eventually finding his grip, and in the end coming home to the same people and the only place he ever knew. Only this time, he is the one that has changed.
There is a definite tendency to sympathize with Johnny Lunden, and for Nichols it was important for this to permeate the novel. “He has a good heart, and he doesn’t let it go sour despite the challenges he’s faced since childhood. For example, he can be halfway into a life-defining tailspin and still recognize and share a secret wink with another lost child,” Nichols said. In the end, Johnny does get his chance to change for the better.
This is a wonderful collection of stories that speak to the heart of person, place and thing, the thing, being the opportunity that arises when people are thrust together and the realization that they may respond in many different ways but collectively they support each other and make their place, special.
Islandport Press, 2015 Hardcover, $24.95