“Land of Cockaigne” by Jeffrey Lewis; Haus Publishing Ltd., London, 2023; 192 pages, paperback, $16.95.

For some Maine readers, the central fact about the protagonist family in Jeffrey Lewis’s novel “Land of Cockaigne” will be that they are from away.

Walter and Catherine “Charley” Rath arrived in Sneeds Harbor, located somewhere along the rim of Mount Desert Island, after Walter had made a ton of money early in the Silicon Valley heyday. They bought a yawl, sailed around, wandered into Sneeds and decided it was a quaint, remote place to make a home.

A nicer home than those of the other Sneeds Harbor residents. In their own patient time, the Raths fit their square peg onto the round hole of the small Down East community. Their son, Stephen, is born and attends the local elementary school. Enough trust builds up around Walter to get him elected selectman. Everyone is nevertheless well aware of the socioeconomic abyss between the Raths and the rest of the town, as evidenced in Stephen’s hilarious, uncomfortable interactions with his little friends from the town’s trailer park.

Walter hires Donnie Cormer, the father of one of Stephen’s friends, to caretake their home. Donnie is one of those rock-solid, stand-up guys whose integrity quietly keeps small Maine towns running. As time goes by, he remains loyal to the Raths and the Raths to him, even amid the inevitable gossip about them. The town chorus, as it were, is sometimes warm, sometimes skeptical, sometimes kind of nasty about the Raths. Sounds pretty familiar.

Eventually Stephen goes off to college and gets involved in social work. In New York City, a random disaster shakes up everything, launching the main story.

Charley and Stephen’s Black girlfriend, Sharon, concoct a plan to build in Sneeds Harbor a sort of glorified summer camp for underprivileged young city men. Walter skeptically calls it a “land of cockaigne,” invoking the 16th-century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicting peasants lolling in gluttony and satiety.


Charley is chafed by Walter’s skeptical irony. Likewise, the camp’s potential to steer actual cocaine and other big-city defilements into Sneeds Harbor chafes some of the townspeople, especially those with a disposition to suspect people of color — which the campers are expected to be — of being mostly criminals. A former Maine governor’s actual words on the topic are put to biting, ironic use in illustration of this kind of prejudice.

As the camp takes shape, so do long-underlying frictions between the well-off Raths and the less-well-off locals, as well as between Charley and Walter. The camp’s pros and cons, so to speak, are debated in town gatherings, unofficial and official. Rumor and fear bubble together. As antisemitic conspiracy theories gain traction, Donnie finds himself with bitter choices to make between the Raths and his town.

“Land of Cockaigne” is about perennial class frictions between Maine locals and people from away, with special emphasis on racial components. Lending a sort of meta-irony to the wry tone of the narrative is the fact that the author himself is a part-time resident of Castine, bringing a sort of outsider’s inside eye to the storytelling. Jeffrey Lewis has won Emmy Awards for TV screenwriting (notably the groundbreaking 1980s series “Hill Street Blues”), and he translates those skills into a figure-skating literary voice whose tone and quirky diction dance throughout on the edge of glibness. There’s enough truth in this book to give everyone an uncomfortable laugh.

Lewis is the author of several novels, including “Bealport” and “The Meritocracy Quartet.” “Land of Cockaigne” is available through local and online book-sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Friday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

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