cover image Salt Water

Salt Water

Chronicle Books, Charles Simmons. Chronicle Books, $19.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-2182-7

Simmons, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review, made his name as a writer with a series of surreal comic novels, including Powdered Eggs and Wrinkles, but the present book, a coming-of-age novella, is a complete change of pace. Written in a spare masculine style, it is based loosely on Turgenev's classic First Love and is narrated by Michael Petrovich, who recalls the memorable summer of 1963 when he was 16 and when Mrs. Mertz and her beautiful daughter, Zina, rented a neighboring house on the East Coast offshore island of Bone Point. Michael's father is a handsome philanderer whose easygoing ways cause tension with his mother; meanwhile, Michael is trying to impress Zina while rejecting the cynical view of women offered by a worldly young friend. Matters come to a tragic head at the Labor Day party that ends this unsettling summer. Simmons's calm, detached telling of the tale, and the major role played by the strongly evoked ocean setting, make for an experience that seems more European than American, and it is interesting to note that this slight but telling book was first published, to enthusiastic reviews, in France. (Sept.)