“The Midcoast: A Novel” by Adam White; Hogarth/Random House, New York, 2022; 336 pages, hardcover, $27.

Adam White’s first novel, “The Midcoast,” barrels head-on into a subject that, if it’s treated at all, often reads more like greeting cards than reality: class frictions along Maine’s coast.

The story is structured around the curiosity of the narrator, Andrew, about a fisherman he crossed paths with when they were teenagers in Damariscotta. Andrew’s father was a physician who sent him to private schools in New England to play lacrosse. After school and some messing around Boston, Andrew and his mildly rebellious Ivy League wife, Maeve, moved back to Damariscotta to settle their young family. The fisherman, from a coastal fishing family, is Ed Thatch.

In the book’s prologue Andrew offers an unusually straightforward, beautifully written summation of the coast’s most powerful social stratification. It involves, he explains, “the granite breakwalls between those who’ve been here for generations and those who’ve landed more recently … I am one of these newer arrivals, not a true Mainer—if your parents are from elsewhere, you don’t count, even if you moved to town at age three.”

Andrew awakened to this social reality during his teenage years as a summer dockhand. He tells us of Ed, Andrew’s boss even though just a year or so older, treating him with distant disdain. Ed, for example, needles Andrew by calling him “Andy”—the name distinction is a class distinction. Ed likes the idea that he’s the physician’s kid’s boss.

Fifteen or 20 years later, Andrew returns to Damariscotta to find Ed and his wife, Steph, practically own the town. Steph has finagled and bullied her way to the position of town manager, partly on the momentum of Ed’s prodigious financial achievements. Andrew, a nonpracticing writer, spots in the Thatches’ rags to riches circumstances some unexplained mysteries, among them: Where does Ed’s money come from?

It can’t be from simple lobstering, as Ed wants everybody, including Steph, to believe. Because in Andrew’s world-view (which does not include much of any Horatio Alger-style optimism), this kind of wealth does not compute in people like Ed who “don’t come from much”— as Andrew and his Ivy League friends characterize the other side of the breakwall.

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Meanwhile Ed’s teenage daughter has taken to the preppy sport of lacrosse. Since Andrew is the lacrosse coach, the two cross paths frequently. These social encounters are mostly awkward for Andrew, due partly to his history with Ed, but mainly to an uneasy mix of feelings typical of Maine coastal residents like Andrew who are aware of what it means to have “landed recently.” This creates a sense of outsiderness, a sort of inferiority, in your own hometown.

On the other hand, the main marker of status in American social hierarchies is money, which the outsiders tend to have and the generational residents don’t. This creates a sense of superiority in people like Andrew and Maeve. Ed still lives in the run-down family house outside town, but somehow has the money to send his daughter to an expensive college—to play lacrosse, no less. Andrew’s inferiority-superiority complex tells him something’s wrong with this picture.

So on the pretext that he’s researching a book, Andrew embarks on an obsessive sleuthing mission to find out where the Thatches’ money comes from. He conducts sit-down interviews with Steph; combs through town documents; garners bits and pieces from Ed himself and their shared teenage history; and stumbles onto a couple of Ed’s and Steph’s improbable well-to-do contacts who provide intriguing information.

What comes out of Andrew’s snooping is the novel itself, though whether Andrew actually, metafictionally, points this out, I can’t remember. The story is told mainly in the first person, as Andrew reconstructs what happened and what he thinks happened. At times the first-person voice melts into that of an omniscient narrator, and we hear dialogue and interior thoughts in suspension-of-disbelief-stretching detail during scenes of crime, sex and death that seem unlikely to have been recoverable through conversations and legal documents.

So the story is largely a work of what Andrew imagines the Thatches’ lives and relationships are like, inferring from concrete events that he knows of, or has heard of, or surmises. It’s a story, in other words, of what life on the other side of the granite breakwall looks like to a conflicted, if honest, guy on the well-to-do side. Andrew is a sort of 21st century Nick Carraway, of “The Great Gatsby,” discovering that the backstory of Ed Thatch’s money, like the backstory of Jay Gatsby’s money, is shady. Tragically shady, as it were.

Late in the book, Andrew and Maeve are on their way to the wedding of one of his former prep school students, whom Andrew ambivalently characterizes as “well-rounded zombies.” Maeve is trying to convince skeptical Andrew that Ed crossing paths with a wealthy financier whose boat he once burgled is not an unlikely coincidence.

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“’Ed and Steph were starting to enter a society — this society. … I’m including myself here. Okay? They were gonna run into someone sooner or later.’”

Of note is Maeve’s clarification “I’m including myself here,” as if normally she rejects the notion that she’s part of the well-off class that produces zombies. But in the harsh illumination cast by the upstart Thatches, she has to come clean about the class difference between herself and people who “don’t come from much.”

You get the uncomfortable feeling there is plenty of truth to go around, in this book.

Adam White grew up in Damariscotta and now lives in Boston, where he teaches English and coaches lacrosse. He is scheduled to speak at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, at Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta. “The Midcoast” is available through local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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