Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema
Delphinium: $13.99 Paperback, $25.99 Hardcover
If you read Adam Schuitema’s debut collection Freshwater Boys over the course of a single night while working as a bouncer in a small southern college town, as I did, you may find that you garner a very particular sort of attention—maybe not the kind you were anticipating when you set out to traverse the book’s 240 pages. Over the course of the night I explained that Freshwater Boys really had nothing to do with being gay and that connections to Lolita were, at best, imagined. “The thing,” I said to marginally interested strangers and acquaintances who’ve never had a sober conversation with me, “is the book doesn’t need any of that.” The stories in Freshwater Boys are tightly crafted emotional capsules. They’re sweet little pills that kick with meaning when they hit the stomach.
Take for example the volume’s second story, “Sand Thieves,” which riffs on several of the book’s recurring themes: youth and maturity, the nature of right and wrong, familial relationships, and the looming presence of Michigan’s Big Lakes. Right away we’re introduced to Uncle Lucien, the character around whom the story turns. Every summer, because of a friendship with the narrator’s grandfather (now deceased) Uncle Lucien joins a trio of sisters and their children at a cottage in the north of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Because of his friendship with the narrator’s grandfather, Uncle Lucien has stolen sand from the nearby Duck Lake State Park—glacial sand from the shores of Lake Michigan—and created for his friend an admirable beach at the cottage. Without the grandfather present, tensions between the youthful (but male role-model-less) boys, their mothers, and the faux Uncle escalate to the point where Lucien, because of the mistreatment of a fish by the boys, causes Terry to bash the back of his head on the prow of a canoe. The mothers, in a rush of vindication, banish Uncle Lucien from the cottage for good. The moment is beautiful not only for its drama, but for its emotional power and for the dexterity of the narration. The narrator describes Uncle Lucien leaving in his beat up old car:
I heard him start the Duster and pull out onto the dirt road. When it happened, I figured he was heartbroken for having to leave. But now I think he wrote us off—wrote the cottage off—the second he started his car. Fuck the white pines. Fuck the horseshoe pit. Terry’s blood? Fuck Terry’s blood—it was less than the blood of a smashed horsefly.
After Lucien’s banishment the sisters and their children agree to return to the cottage a week later and find that all of Lucien’s effort to build and maintain the beach over the years has been completely reversed. Where once waves lapped on fine, white, glacial sand; now, “All the soft sand was gone, leaving a scar of roots, dark dirt, and a gaping mouth in the earth that the lake began to fill. He left us a lagoon.”
Like in Henry James, the structures—the symmetries and complications—of these stories are readily apparent. They’re like houses that aren’t afraid to bare the studs beneath the drywall, that see no shame in revealing the insulation tucked into the cracks around the window. But to appreciate these stories solely for their symmetries and construction is to miss their real importance. By laying the connections baldly before us, Schuitema is expecting us to examine the interstices of the characters and their morality and the ways in which this place, Michigan and its lakes, informs the dramas played out within its confines. And Freshwater Boys is replete with drama. There are deaths. There are spiritual rebirths. There are mystic deer traveling through cities. There are hermits. There are kidnappings. But all of these dramas are told with intense humanity and a sense that growing up—living, raising children—can never be winnowed or whittled to a single truth, but only complicated by the interaction of a boy or a man with his home and the people he loves. Like the narrator at the end of “Sand Thieves” Schuitema hopes that we will fill our trunks with Lake Michigan sand and “[roar] through the state park at dawn,” and in a final gesture that serves not to explain the narrator’s feelings about the hole left at the cottage, but only complicate it, we will leave “the rangers arriving to an already smaller beach.”