“Centered”

By Steven D. Powell

North Country Press, Unity, 2015

248 pages, paperback, $16.95

Early in Steven Powell’s novel “Centered,” the protagonist, Sarah, climbs out of bed in her temporary room over a veterinarian’s office, gets down on the floor and hugs her serendipitously acquired canine companion, Centered. Centered picks his head up and gives Sarah a kiss, which presumably means he licks her face. Then Sarah jumps in the shower. It’s all very sweet and innocent — in keeping with what’s really the overall tone of the book.

Implicitly, of course, Sarah is naked there in the shower. Her benefactor, Betsy, who runs the veterinarian clinic and is by the way a lesbian, is “feeling mischievous” and tiptoes up the stairs. She signals Centered to keep quiet (sweet), uncoils a snake from around her neck (less sweet), and while Sarah’s back is turned to the shower door, drapes the snake over the shower head (kind of weird).

The snake slides down onto Sarah’s shoulder. Determined not to let the prank freak her out, Sarah turns off the water and steps boldly out of the shower. “‘I’m guessing that seeing me naked is what you were really after,'” she says to Betsy. “‘So have a good look, it’s your last chance. Besides, it’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me over the last year.'”

Betsy chuckles and admits that one view of Sarah’s naked body is exactly what she was hoping for before Sarah moves out of her room and into her new place. The scene then dissolves, and they go off to lawn sales and pizza with friends.

Now, a scene with a naked young woman in a shower with a snake planted by an apparently slightly aroused older lesbian is not an innocent dramatic image, no matter how you twist and turn for an angle on it. And yet, everything in “Centered” — the simultaneously joky and frank sex scenes, and even the bad guy who early on prompts Sarah’s hookup with the dog — comes with a sort of zero shades of gray cheerfulness that is too uncomfortably good to be true.

At the outset, Sarah Grace rolls into town waywardly escaping her old life while driving to she-has-no-idea-where Maine. Within a few pages she stops for a bite to eat, prevails in an ugly encounter with a couple of pickup-driving townies, wins the admiration of the local onlookers, and becomes the recipient of not only the dog, but the free place to live at the vet’s. After a while she finds a place of her own and a love interest (heterosexual) which — despite the unabashed lesbian-libido motif and frequent jovial Down East commerce with drink — chastely takes awhile to consummate.

The story is about Sarah getting centered and finding a home. Along the way, some pretty nasty stuff transpires involving the initial bad guy. Then a sailor’s knot of small-town relationships, a “down state” school for the deaf, and Sarah’s hidden connections to it all is slowly disentangled, providing the forward motion of the plot.

Some of it is, to speak plainly, kind of violent. But as in the snake-lesbian-shower scene, the voice that’s telling the story seems sunnily beyond any potential implications of good and evil. As the bad and the ugly invisibly approach, Sarah (the good) is jumping out of bed to Centered’s unequivocal companionship: “Just by the way she was looking back at him was evidence enough that it was a good morning,” Centered thinks with characteristic Down East syntax. Somewhat later, Sarah will be serenely drinking beer with the fellow who tried to kill her and found, somewhere, his inner nice guy.

The message of “Centered” seems to be that, come what may, a good disposition and a good dog, plus maybe a piano, will carry you a long way in the direction of peace, love and domestic understanding. I wonder if that snake isn’t telling us something more, though.

Steven Powell lives in Waldoboro. His first novel was “Patch Scratching.” “Centered” is available from North Country Press and online booksellers.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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