New York NEWSDAY

Sad but Likeable Family At the Edge of the Sea
January 30, 1995, by Dan Cryer
OPEN WATER, by Maria Flook. 327 pp. Pantheon Books.

WITH HER SECOND novel, “Open Water,” Maria Flook’s fiction has come of age. She’s shaken the erotic-noir chic of her first, “Family Night” (1993), out of her system without sacrificing the spiky, agile lyricism of her prose.

It’s not as though “Family Night” wasn’t good – it was, after all, a finalist for the PEN / Hemingway award for first fiction. But “Open Water” represents a more commodious mainstream direction: It’s as though Martin Amis had been reborn as Anne Tyler. While underscoring the unconventional makeup of contemporary families, the novel delights us with touching, deeply felt comedy.

If Cam, the 30-ish man at the center of “Family Night,” was an unlikably self-centered sexual daredevil with a caustic wit, Willis Pratt, by contrast, inhabits a quieter, more gentle universe. Discharged from the Navy because of incorrigible thievery, Willis returns to Rhode Island to share a big Victorian place on the Newport waterfront with his adoptive mother, Rennie Hopkins. Given to goading bad fortune into worse, Willis is nursing a broken wrist that he’d intentionally slammed into a post the day he left the base. Rennie’s condition is more serious; she’s dying of cancer.

Next door, Holly Jensen is recovering from a divorce, “moving from a stale, familiar loneliness into a fresh state of loneliness.” Her audacious burning of her erstwhile marital bed resulted in an arson charge and humiliating newspaper notoriety (“SPURNED WIFE IGNITES THE NEST”). No wonder she’s the talk of the town.

The town in question is hardly the Newport of the mansion-and-yacht set. Through vivid description and telling detail, Flook deftly evokes her working-class world by the sea. The sea is a constant eerie presence, a source of wonder, sustenance and death. These Newporters fish for a living, drive trucks, clean motels and sometimes can’t avoid the temptations of petty crime.

Willis’ best friend, Fritz Federico, is always trying to lure him into off-the-wall schemes. Early in the book, we see the pair dumping a load of stolen tools into a pond, Willis having persuaded his buddy that he’d no doubt be caught. Before long, though, Willis is going along for the delivery of illegally imported exotic birds. From this misguided venture, Willis gets an unwanted introduction to Gene Showalter, a creepy entrepreneur whose specialty is 3-D porno filmstrips.

Meantime, Rennie’s sole biological offspring, Munro, a prominent local banker with more arrogance than good sense, is bent on shoving his mother into a fancy nursing home, Chateau-sur-Mer. Sarcasm is her primary mode of resistance (“It’s the Last Supper every night,” she quips). Willis and Holly form her posse of ardent co-conspirators.

Although Flook kept the characters in “Family Night” at a discreet distance, she takes Willis right to her bosom. She makes him an orphan, for sure, but never stoops to sentimentality. Willis is a bit of a lost soul who can’t figure out what to do with himself, can’t find love and can’t stay away from Rennie’s morphine pills. But he’s an adorable dreamer whose primary mode of expression is memorized radio DJ patter and oldies lyrics.

Willis ended up at Rennie’s after the death of his beloved Cuban-born mother with the country-tune name of Wydette – yes, Cuban-Americans do get Americanized. He was 13 and never forgave his father, Lester, for letting his mother choke to death on a sausage-and-pepper hero during a squabble. But Lester at least courted a new girlfriend, the twice-widowed Rennie, and then was good enough to die himself.

“She was building up before his eyes,” thinks the teenaged Willis, “like one of those stalagmites he’d read about. She was unfathomable and beautiful and there forever.” But Rennie won’t be, and Flook’s account of her gallant descent is heartbreakingly potent.

The author paces her story well, penetrates to the depth of her major characters while successfully sketching in some hilarious minor ones and sets up scene after funny scene. Her prose is at once elegant and piquant. It’s a perfect-pitch performance capable of summoning character or landscape with equal facility. One notes in particular her forte for deriving emotional truths from the nuances of body language:

“In cold weather he {Fritz} shivered in lightning-fast tugs and rolls of his shoulders, vibrating like a tuning fork. And always, his face was blank. He never had any expression . . . Willis envied how that gloom lived outside of Fritz instead of in his head.”

And here is an early encounter between Willis and Holly: “He looked at her again, with complete familiarity. He looked at her the way a mechanic sees a big table of parts he has just disassembled, deciding if and when to put them back together.”

The title of “Family Night” was all irony, as the “family” in question proved to be ersatz and short-lived, composed of too many unstable elements. But “Open Water” shows a more tender, more poignant side of Maria Flook. By book’s end, her Willis, Rennie and Holly really are a family, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, even unto death.