The great thing about small towns is that they often harbor big stories. “Our Town” was a microcosm of the human condition. “To Kill a Mockingbird” captured an era. And here, in Judy Chicurel’s hauntingly written debut, a once prosperous (and fictional) Long Island seaside town of Elephant Beach becomes the backdrop for a series of linked short stories tracing the unfolding lives of a group of disenchanted high school graduates, their friends, and their families during the tumultuous 1970s.
Katie, the main character and narrator, lives in Elephant Beach and hangs out at Eddy’s, a candy store that’s open only in the summer. Kids here fritter away the sultry days buying beer and drugs, while Katie pines for Luke, a damaged Vietnam vet who doesn’t seem to notice her. These are kids who are “afraid of missing something,” and although Katie has been accepted to the local community college, she knows it’s as much a dead end as her current job working at the A&P. The Recession is in full force, and everyone is restless, including the adults who have clung to their dreams a bit too long.
But while the other teens find escape in sleeping around or drinking, Katie has to be the good girl, which often puts her on the outskirts. Adopted, she’s afraid her parents might give her up, and her sense of alienation from everyone else around her is palpable.
Katie does have some girls on her side, but only occasionally, and none of them dream very big. Her friend Nanny attends a local secretarial school. Ginger gets pregnant and gives her baby away, imagining she can return to her carefree life, unmarked. And Liz, in one of the novel’s most extraordinary scenes, faces whether to have an abortion. Even seeming success stories fail, as when Marcy marries her ostensibly kind, sweet boyfriend James, moves away, and ends up with a life derailed. None of the girls gets any real support from mothers or fathers, leaving them all a little rudderless.
A perpetual dreamer, Katie yearns for “something real that lived in the world and not in my head” and as she pines for the elusive Luke, she spends time with another broken Vietnam vet, Mitch, who acts as a touchstone, advising and caring for her. But gradually, as time goes on, more and more of the local denizens leave in one way or another, until tragedy strikes.
Chicurel has the ability to sketch characters so real we can feel their breath on the back of our necks, their voices in our ears, and we come to care deeply about all of them. Her sense of place, and of the 1970s, is indelible. Elephant Beach, a once shiny jewel, is now chipped and full of flaws, and its crumbling facades (the Starlight hotel “smelled of mildew and seaweed”), and seedy bars underline the difference between the past, the not-so-great present, and the uncertainty of the future. The writing is clear and lovely.
The big problem is that Chicurel’s characters, while they initially feel authentic, never seem to really develop and grow (and occasionally, Chicurel will jump ahead to show us a character years later, stuck in the same or a similar morass). This makes the novel feel stalled, as if any possible way out is just going to be another wrong turn.
This is particularly troubling in the case of Katie. She wants to break free of Elephant Beach, but at the same time she resists, and there’s no real reason why, because she isn’t particularly happy there. We never get to see what real change might mean for her. The only thing that transforms at the end is Elephant Beach itself, which begins to gentrify, marking the end of an era. What we’re left with is a novel that brilliantly shines as a kind of tableau of how people lived at a specific time and place, but we still yearn to see the people within come fully to life.
Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Is This Tomorrow.’’ She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.