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BOOK REVIEW

Hunting the American dream in ‘The Great Offshore Grounds’

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Do poor Americans today have a shot at preventing the latest iteration of their country’s much-ballyhooed Manifest Destiny from shunting them into oblivion?

This, it would seem, is the question animating “The Great Offshore Grounds,” the second novel by Vanessa Veselka. In following several members of the same immediate Seattle-based family as they embark on distinct journeys at a critical moment in their lives, the author gives herself an opportunity to explore different ways by which neoliberal America rides roughshod over some of its most vulnerable people. “All the decisions we make don’t matter because the story isn’t about us,” laments Cheyenne in a conversation with her brother, Essex.

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In Veselka’s telling, however, the story is in fact about them — and, with the necessary adjustments, countless other underprivileged men and women caught up in a system that has little use for their kind. Indeed, for all its sweep and ambition, “The Great Offshore Grounds” mercifully remains driven by its characters’ personal travails, as opposed to the sometimes muddled socio-historical commentary with which they are interspersed. Portland, Ore.-based Veselka, whose first novel, “Zazen,” was quite the sleeper, has an intuitive sense as to when she should break away from the big picture and home in on the little person.

The Great Offshore Grounds” centers on four such little persons: 50-something Kirsten, her daughters Livy and Cheyenne, who are in their early 30s, and her son Essex, adopted at age 11 and now in his late 20s. Veselka, who employs third-person narration, inhabits the minds of all four. The novel opens with Livy and Cheyenne’s rich and long-absent father, Cyril, whom Kirsten divorced years ago, remarrying at a wedding ceremony in Puget Sound attended by the penurious family he forsook. This sets the stage for Kirsten, Livy, Cheyenne, and Essex to revisit their past. One bit of family lore that resurfaces is that, just over three decades ago, Kirsten and a friend of hers both became pregnant by Cyril. However, this flighty friend wanted to chase the North Star, so Kirsten ended up keeping both their babies, Livy and Cheyenne; with the cooperation of a midwife, she ensured that she did not find out which of the two was her biological daughter.

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Well, all these years later, it turns out that Kirsten knows more than she’s willing to let on. And Cheyenne decides that she must travel across the country in search of her biological mother.

Before that happens, however, the reader learns of the specific circumstances of each of the novel’s protagonists. It’s not a pretty picture, as they are all eking out an existence. Essex has a dead-end job as a part-time taxi driver of cars he does not own, and pines for Cheyenne, with whom he’s in love. Livy most recently worked in the fishing industry in Alaska, but the money has since drained out of her particular gig. Cheyenne, who has a failed marriage behind her, is working as an office temp and has no prospect of securing a permanent position, let alone climbing some corporate ladder. Kirsten takes a job as a security guard, but must wait for her medical coverage to kick in before she looks into her increasingly dire stomach condition: “It would take three months to clear the probationary period and get health-care coverage. Then most of her check would go to covering the premium, but it was better than bouncing on and off of Medicaid every time the qualifications changed.”

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Crucially, Kirsten, Livy, Cheyenne, and Essex’s subsequent misadventures are compelling in and of themselves, irrespective of whether they serve to highlight the rapacity of unchecked neoliberalism or the growing hole in America’s social safety net. Rather than subordinate her protagonists’ experiences to a larger narrative, Veselka patiently waits for a chance to make a connection between one and the other.

And far from concluding matters, such dovetailing opens up new and dangerous vistas for her characters. This is arguably the novel’s finest feature.

“Over his twenty-seven years,” Veselka writes, “Essex had failed at most everything conferring social value.” So he joins the Marines. Cheyenne realizes that she is “whatever she was going to become and not at the beginning, middle, or end but past it, living out the part not worth telling because nothing was going to happen.” So she sets off on a quest to find her birth mother, criss-crossing the country before ending up in North Carolina.

The result of all this is, to be sure, an overly diffuse story. Yet the fact that “The Great Offshore Grounds” does not break apart under the strain is testament to the author’s careful handling of her characters’ peregrinations, whether land-bound or maritime. Though Kirsten stays put, Cheyenne, Essex, and Livy — who betakes herself once more to frigid Alaska, this time to risk life and limb working on one rickety boat after another — roam far and wide. Just when it looks as though the story will unravel, Veselka spools it back into itself, often by temporarily merging two characters’ trajectories. And all the while, Essex, Cheyenne, and Livy are haunted by a distressing notion: “Maybe this is what it looks like to flunk adulthood.”

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THE GREAT OFFSHORE GROUNDS

By Vanessa Veselka

Knopf, 448 pp., $27.95

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta. His debut novel is “When All Else Fails.”