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home : • book reviews & literary events : book reviews & literary events
April 23, 2019

5/14/2015 8:51:00 AM
Warren writer ranks with literary luminaries -
"Closer All the Time" by Jim Nichols
Reviewed by Georgeanne Davis
Published by Islandport Press

Writers who start their careers with "regional" attached to their names often go on to wider recognition. Kent Haruf immersed the reader in small-town Colorado, Jane Smiley brought to life farming families in Iowa, Richard Russo the mill towns of upper New York State, and Charles Frazier the Southern Appalachians. In addition to their regional designation, all of these authors have become nationally known, winning a National Book Award nomination (Haruf), an actual National Book Award (Frazier) and Pulitzer Prizes (Russo and Smiley).

Warren's Jim Nichols, with his previous two works, "Slow Monkeys and Other Stories" (1992) and "Hull Creek," a novel and runner-up for the 2012 Maine Book Award, made himself a prime candidate for "Maine Fiction Writer Most Likely to Succeed." No one paints a more vivid portrait of coastal Maine towns and their native sons and daughters - the clammers and bartenders, diner waitresses and business owners, all scrambling up the lower rungs of the economic ladder - than Nichols. But with his latest work, "Closer All the Time," published by Islandport Press and described by Nichols as a "novel-in-stories," this regional writer should receive recognition beyond the borders of his natal state, so others might appreciate his rich narratives, rolled out in his plain yet penetrating writing style.

"Closer All the Time" is centered in the fictional coastal Maine town of Baxter in the years following World War Two. The stories, each titled for its cental character, twine and intermingle like the watery trails that wind through the clam flats of Baxter's tidal river, crossing and joining each other as they progress to the sea. The most central character of these intertwined narratives, appearing in both the first and final stories, is Johnny Lundgren, who is in many ways an autobiographical character. As Nichols has, Lundgren works as a bartender and is seen by the characters in the stories as likeable, "lively and comical" as a child, according to Early, the main character in the second story, who runs into Johnny when both set out to harvest clams in an off-limits cove. While Lundgren and his steady, gentle decline into alcoholism are a thread that weaves through the stories, he is often only glimpsed, as by a young girl who joins him in watching a parade, or recalled in the reflections of the now-adult woman who was his best friend throughout their childhood.

Yet Lundgren appears not at all in one of the true jewels of the collection, with Russell Banks, a bush pilot, as its protagonist. Under the title "Owls," this story was the 2014 Curt Johnson Fiction Prize winner, awarded by the distinguished literary magazine december, which has published the early work of many writers who became major literary figures, among them Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates. Nichols belongs in this list of luminaries: his writing is in the same vein as Carver's who, in turn, was often seen to have received the mantle of Ernest Hemingway, both of them using spare prose to hint at, rather than explicitly state, their characters' underlying emotional state. Fortunately, Nichols characters are warmer and less self-involved than Carver's, with flashes of droll humor.

Also fortunate is the way in which Nichols' tone and sensibilities are purely his own. Too many short story writers seem to be spawned from the same MFA Creative Writing Program. When asked, Nichols said that his formal writing training consists of a week at the Molasses Pond Writers Workshop for a couple of summers, and a week-long stint at a summer program at Simmons College one year. Of his singular lack of formal training, he says, "I think it's helped actually, at least in terms of authenticity. No academic squeeze to conform, etc. It's probably made the sledding a bit tougher as well...." Nichols has a rich trove of life experience to mine, garnered as he took jobs that allowed him time to write: "I tended bar for a decade or so, so I wasn't working days, and when I worked at the Knox County airport I generally had dead time in the evening, waiting for the last flight to come in, when I could sit and type with few distractions because there weren't many phone calls after eight o'clock or so."

That dead time waiting in an airport, those recalled nights of barroom conversations and observations form the backlit scrim for Nichols' characters as they go through their lives, and they loom large before it as they work and struggle to find their place in the ongoing drama. Nichols writes of his characters in the third person, yet we feel them as intimately as if they speak to us with their own voices. His characters and their private thoughts and moments stay with us long after we close the cover of the book.

Those who hope for more of Nichols' writing can possibly look forward to a future novel. Asked about what's coming up, Nichols says he's working on "a more conventional novel. A couple, actually, going back and forth, waiting for one or the other to grab me and not let go. It'll be a while, though, I'm afraid." While you wait for Nichols' next book, read "Slow Monkeys" and "Hull Creek," if you haven't already, and tell every reader you know about an author who should be taking his place on the national literary scene.

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