Fictional Menhaden Island off the coast of Maine is “a tight-knit community of think-alikes – lobstermen, mostly, and the peevish women who marry them.” This observation comes early in “Faron Goss,” Diane Lechleitner’s debut novel. The lobstermen’s wives are fairly think-alike, too, united in their longstanding disdain for Alison Goss, a seductive beauty who has a penchant for sleeping indiscriminately with married island men and, in the summer season, the tourists. She is also the unwed mother of eight-year-old Faron Goss.

The book opens with a local lobsterman hauling up Alison’s body entangled in the line of his lobster trap. Ashore, he gets Jerry Gallager, who runs the chandlery, to help him drag her body up the launch ramp using boat hooks. They call the island sheriff, then go off to have lunch at Scuppers Restaurant.

To say Alison was inattentive as a mother would be a gross understatement. She raised Faron “like he was another chore that needed doing. The sooner it was finished, the sooner she could go off and do what she wanted.” Almost nightly, she brought men home to make drunken love, with Faron listening through the thin walls. Lechleitner doesn’t linger here, but she tells us enough to intimate that Faron’s life will be marked by darkness.

Though there is no love lost for Alison among the island wives, the women are sympathetic to the boy. Faron ends up living with Father Quinn Gage, minister of the Good Shepherd by the Sea Episcopalian Church, and his wife, Mary. Faron is reclusive and odd, capturing bugs and moths in old cigar boxes just to listen to them buzz and thump inside, then letting them go. He also runs barefoot and shirtless through island fields filled with bees, “to see if the buzzing was louder than the stings.” The island people are curious about him, but don’t know what to make of him.

After the strong early setup, the narrative loses a little focus; rather than dramatically depict events, Lechleitner simply tells them. The odd child grows up to become an odd teenager. At 16, “Faron Goss was beautiful to look at, just like his mother – a lithe, winsome eyeful.” Girls in school “clamored to get a whiff of him. The braver ones arranged to meet him after school, hoping he’d fondle their breasts.” They love the way he draws moths and insects, but he is indifferent to their attention.

After graduating high school, he is sent away to rehab for being party to a girl’s plan to be kidnapped as a way to get her parents to give her a car. There he comes into sharper focus. He hones his prodigious artistic talent in rehab, his gifts recognized by Del, the shop instructor. ”Don’t think in terms of color. Only light and shadow. Squint your eyes and look for the shape,” Del tells the budding artist. Lechleitner’s depiction of Faron’s growing creative prowess is near mesmerizing, her observations and her insights illuminating. She clearly draws on her own talents as an artist to provide such powerful verisimilitude.

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Eventually, Faron goes to work as the sternman on a lobster boat. He is a hard worker, which impresses the captain. But his habit of closing his eyes while hauling traps unnerves the man, who repeatedly warns him it’s unsafe. Faron ignores the warning because seeing the traps rise to the surface reminds him of his mother’s drowning.

The young man’s world changes when he becomes acquainted with Alva Dodge, whose grandparents had lived on the island. Alva is older than he is, but the two are kindred spirits and are instantly smitten: She loves birds and he loves bugs. Faron marries Alva and fathers twin boys, showing a preference for the smaller, weaker of the two. The story grows more complex, compelling and dark.

“Faron Goss” tells of a damaged boy who struggles – mostly unconsciously – to seek liberation from his haunted childhood. It also depicts a community coming together to embrace him with compassion as one of their own. It’s a big story told simply, without flourish. I look forward to reading more from Lechleitner.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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