Gravesend Light

David Payne, Author Doubleday Books $24.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-47338-5
Taking up the story of Joe Madden, son of May and Jimmy Madden from Payne's earlier Ruin Creek, this earnest, maritime-accented novel opens with Joe's 1983 return to Little Roanoke, N.C. Now a cultural anthropologist, he secures a berth on the fishing boat Father's Price in the hopes of completing an ethnographic survey of local fishermen and their families, his primary focus being the clash between tradition and modernization. Joe himself is soon clashing with love interest Dr. Day Shaughnessy, a committed feminist and prochoice advocate who runs a clinic for women and is stirring up trouble in the conservative community. Joe, who professes to be a neutral observer, doubts the wisdom of her interference in town affairs. Meantime, he is tormented by memories of his parents' difficult relationship. But when two unplanned pregnancies crop up in the plot, and Joe and the crew of Father's Price are caught in a fierce winter storm, Joe realizes that he must renounce his Hamletish ways and act rather than observe, or risk losing what he sees as his chance for salvation. When an accomplished novelist publishes as rarely as Payne--this is just his fourth novel since 1984--any new book is greeted with high hopes. Heartfelt but uneven, this one only partially satisfies. Once again, Payne's trademark passion for the Southern landscape is palpably in evidence and he's got Joe's modern gothic family down pat. But copious doses of fishing lore overwhelm the plot, and only those who have an ethnographer's high tolerance for dialect will appreciate extended authentic passages in which characters fight ""foire with foire."" The novel's intense focus on large, complex issues--the abortion debate, homosexuality, Christian faith--will strike some readers as polemical, but others will appreciate Payne's willingness to treat them head-on, with passionate zeal. Southern reading tour. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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