This is one of those cases in which I know an acclaimed author personally. Doris Betts was my summertime mentor (and that of a few other emerging writers from North Carolina) a few years ago, and she sharpened my fiction writer's learning curve as steeply as the slopes of Mount Everest. But this ain’t about me and she (sorry for the bad grammar – it just seemed appropriate for some reason). I’ve resisted blogging on this book for a long time – it didn’t seem right to subject my mentor to the potential of criticism (there: the truth’s out – I don’t always know exactly what I’m going to write about a book until I get there).
One of the things Doris put forward in rather strong terms that summer was that fiction can be technically proficient, but you do the reader a disservice in making it unnecessarily oblique. The River To Pickle Beach is just such an object lesson in both tempered, taut prose and reader accessibility.
Her story here is a rather simple one. It’s set against the backdrop of the summer of 1968 (a heady year if ever there was one) along the North Carolina coast. Principal characters Bebe and Jack Sellar have decided (at Bebe’s urging, it seems) to spend the summer at this location managing a number of beach cottages. But that’s hardly the story.
Jack is cast as the accommodating but often challenging husband, Bebe as the “good” wife, who is in search of – well – something. And that something comes in the form of Mickey McCane, a former military pal of Jack’s – a troubled man. Of course, Bebe goes for the “bad boy” but in an extremely conflicted way, this conflict only playing to conclusion on the novel’s last few pages. But the thing that makes this novel of a character triad imminently interesting is how the author pulls the reader into her story.
Betts spends a lot of time setting the stage and prepping her characters (an irony for someone renowned more for short stories than novels). And as the best authors will do, she gives us the gist of her story fairly early on. Here I’ll quote (without going into backstory details):
“Jack?” She looked at the dog, scratching his back. “Jack, you must have thought about things like this more than most people ever need to. Why do you think they happen?” With perfect trust, then, she turned to him as if he would give her the final answer.
“There’s a chain of events, but not a why,” he said. That’s what he had learned in the eight years he went surreptitiously to State Technical College. That all life, from butterfly to comet, was interlocked and had happened the way dice could turn up showing twelve black dots. He said, “Where did you put the aspirin?”
Betts is as good a gauge of human makeup as any fine writer, and here she conveys in a powerful way that no one of us is an island (okay, a cliché – mine, not hers), but a product of family, and of the world and time we live in. Clearly, this perspective comes fraught with storytelling possibilities. Which brings me to technique.
Betts never wastes words. Every sentence, every word within, is calculated for effect, in the most succinct way possible. Too, she uses a technique of portraying her three characters separately in discrete chapters, but this too is deceptively simple, something only a gifted writer can pull off. Many of these chapters, purported to be “about” Bebe, Jack, or Mickey, are really about all three – as well as a double handful of other characters, complemented with the time warp of backstory. Too, there are breathtaking narrative passages that set her triad concretely into North Carolina's coastal ambience. But the troubled times of 1968 are never allowed to become distant from her characters' personal lives. These implications are beautifully orchestrated in – as Ms. Betts put to us that summer – textures, layers of sensory and emotional impressions that can’t help but remain with the reader once the novel’s specifics fade.
This is what the best novels do today. And Doris Betts has gained all too little credit for her mastery on the craft that's on display for us in The River To Pickle Beach.