6" x 9"
The Oyster Singer Recaptures
Lost Character of the Shore
By Bill Geiger
Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. And just to prove it, local writer and Shore resident Larry Savadove has not only gone home again, but he has written a book about it.
Savadove's second novel, The Oyster Singer ($22.95, hardcover, 491 pages, Down The Shore Publishing) is set in an area well known to folks in these parts: Mud City. Just across the bay. A rag-tag collection of shacks and huts sitting on stilts over the water. Savadove's Mud City is from a bygone era, though, inhabited by people on the fringes, a time before the explosion of development changed the local landscape forever. It is a story of fast friendships, of living off the bay but in harmony with it, a story of seasons, of drifting characters who have found a home in the most unlikely of places.
And, in the end, it is a story of love. If you know Long Beach Island and the mainland, or if you've ever spent any time down the shore, you'll want to read The Oyster Singer.
Savadove is no stranger to local readers. He has been writing here since 1990, when he came back to the Jersey Shore he knew as a child. He retired last year as editor of The SandPaper Section 2 entertainment section, and continues to write his "Savvy" column for The SandPaper and his "Shorelines" in The Beachcomber. In addition, he is co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore and has contributed to several other books. But he is drawn to the offbeat, the peculiar, whether in a person or in a place.
The Oyster Singer is about such a place. "Mud City was a place to go when there was no other place that fit," Savadove writes in the novel. "It seemed that the people who got there were always coming there, though perhaps unaware. They had left other ambitions behind somewhere, other necessities. They settled, they fit, they stayed."
The novel is also about such people. Its main character, Lum Crosse, is a man for whom Mud City is a haven. There he can clam, fish, and sing for oysters. Lum is the title character. He quotes Abe Lincoln verbatim and has many unusual gifts, but none more so than his ability to sing up oysters. He can make such a sound with his vocal chords, a cross between a screech and the first unsure notes of an inflating bagpipe, that the oysters and clams are shaken from their holds on the bay bottom and float to the surface. He's also an unofficial leader of his small group of Mud City squatters their conscience, their sounding board, and the best drinker of all.
There's Wally Garber, a bait fisherman; Dick Flence, who used to be in the Coast Guard; Horst Wexler and Hughie Draper, two fishing guides, although Horst also does some hunting; Charley Farley, the bait and tackle dealer; Billy Byrd, a wizard with heavy equipment; Smoochy Piccardi, trainer of fishing cats; and Leo, the proprietor of the local bar who keeps on hand the brews each man likes to drink, including the stiff rum Lum prefers.
Into their masculine world comes Ging (rhymes with "ring"), fleeing the tourist trap of the nearby resort island, an expert cook who wants to try her hand at making a living off the bay. Like Lum, Ging is well experienced in life but has her guard up. She's been hurt before and is taking things slow and easy.
Like all the itinerants living in Mud City, Ging is welcomed, but Lum seems more welcoming than the others. She seems likewise interested in Lum, and that give-and-take between two veterans of life's mysteries ebbs and flows like the tides throughout the novel.
As The Oyster Singer unfolds in time, Savadove's keen eye for description conjures up images that are as true to the shore as golden-red sunsets over the bay. He describes flocks of geese, herons and egrets fishing for meals; setting a sailboat quietly and neatly to its dock mooring; and great storms over the open water. Three times in the novel strong storms occur, each affecting an important character. No matter what the seasons provide, no matter what humans try to do to the shore, the storms show that nature is always in control.
Attention is paid to the little things, too. Savadove discusses the "trick" knot Lum uses to secure his primary means of conveyance on the bay, his practical "two canoe," a boat consisting of two canoes lashed together. Or he describes the particular sound an oar makes in the water, changing whether the paddler is going with or against the tide. He describes the smell of a marsh creek, or the earthy scent of the pinelands blowing on a strong west wind across the bay.
He is particularly good with describing the ocean, and sounds of waves lapping on the sand. In one part of the book, he describes the loneliness of a sentinel during World War II guarding the beaches from bunkers placed every hundred yards or so apart, looking out for invaders from German submarines: "He wanted a cigarette, but there was the rule: no lights, no cigarettes. 'Your turn to walk,' the other man said. He pushed into his pea coat, took his carbine from the hook, snapped the leash on the Doberman and slipped out the rear of the bunker. He stopped to get his bearings the ocean was east; he turned left, to the north
between the splashes of the waves he listened for
a clink of metal, the chunk of an oar, murmurs creeping over the waves, eruptions, the cry of the Huns. His ears were tuned like a radio to the sound of the waves, set to their roll and crash. There's one every five seconds, he'd been told, but not every five seconds, he discovered. They came in threes, three threes made nine, the loudest. In between he listened. His steps were timed to the beat, and each time a wave broke sequence, his feet twitched: run, went the message, run, run!
Such natural description is important for setting the novel, but Savadove is also a master at character description. "Many writers like plot-driven novels, but I like to write character-driven novels," Savadove said in a recent interview. "I thought of a place like Mud City and wondered who would be in a place like that and what would their stories be. That's how I came up with the characters."
Stories and characters two essential elements in The Oyster Singer. Savadove splits the novel into roughly two parts; the first half to two-thirds is character exposition, told mainly through stories. Each character has a fairly long story to tell that both sharpens the character and lends some knowledge about why the character settled in Mud City. Some of the stories are fantastical, some somber, some hilarious. When Ging finally gets around to telling her story three-quarters through the novel, don't be surprised if you find yourself laughing out loud.
In contrast, Lum tells a story about his time spent on oil tankers, various crew members and bunkmates he got to know, and in one particular instance, what happened when a steam-fitting burst when two men were inside an oil tank, cleaning out the dregs. Scalding steam flies about. Serious, deadly, vivid description.
Life around Mud City takes a serious turn later in the novel when two things happen: a dead body is found floating beneath Ging's shack, and the threat of development encroaches on the squatter settlement. The quest for the dead body's identification leads to a trail into the pinelands, and a cool description of some true "pineys," people even more on the outside than Lum's crew escaping life, the world, or bad war experiences by living invisibly in the deep wilderness. The Jersey Devil legend even pops up in these passages.
But a more serious threat to Mud City's cast of characters is impending development. Turns out that most of the dwellers are squatting on land that was once going to be a Beach Haven West kind of development called Bay Villas. Too many necessary permits, too little money, and new regulations doomed the development, and the deed to the land went into a bank's safe deposit box, but not before the land lay vacant and beckoned the motley crew to live there.
Land deeds, however, have a way of resurfacing, and the last part of the novel describes the inevitable push of development, fueled by political cronyism, as it moves toward Mud City. Lum and crew come up with a plan attempting to stop it because they know there are not too many places like Mud City left along the coast.
Rich character development, good storytelling, and interesting twists on things you thought you knew about the Jersey Shore lurk within the pages of The Oyster Singer. Places like the old fish factory turn up, and other familiar names: Cedar Run, West Creek, a tourist-trap resort called "the island
" Savadove says yes, Mud City does sound like Mallard Island in Manahawkin Bay, but a Mallard Island before it became prime real estate. "There used to be Mud Cities all along the shore," he said. "Maybe Wildwood's Grassy Sound, or Motts Creek near Smithville, might be all that are left. We're losing the character of the shore." His novel goes a long way in capturing what is left of that character.
There's an exciting sailboat race involving old-time sneakboxes, melon seed-shaped duck boats local hunters used for a hundred years. In that same race, some Island yacht club characters come in for some gentle satire. There's a wild party on a low-tide island that sounds suspiciously like Tucker's. There's Blind Pugh, sneaking onto the wildlife refuge at the south end of the island, eluding the rangers there. The Oyster Singer is a compendium of images from all aspects of seashore life, ones you'll know whether you live on the island or vacation here for two weeks a summer.
Savadove published his first novel, The Sound of One Hand, in 1960. Even though 44 years elapsed between novels, Savadove is philosophical. "I've been writing all that time," he said. "I've written children's books, song lyrics, poetry, short stories, ad copy, news journalism. I have four other novels in the works or finished. I hope this one captures a broad audience."
It deserves to. The Oyster Singer is a delightful novel, with strong characters and an interesting story, reminiscent of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, but with a much more local flavor. Savadove is able to capture the lure of the shore and makes a reader yearn for Mud City one more time. You can't ask from a novel more than that.
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