Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

Joe Coomer
Pocketful of Names
Graywolf Press


Ten Acre No Nine is one of the many islands off the coast of Maine. Or it isn't. In the bio on the back of his latest novel, author Joe Coomer claims to have inherited Ten Acre No Nine from a great-uncle, and invites the public to visit and camp out on the northeast shore. Yet the geographic record suggests that this speck of land exists solely in Coomer's imagination; it is a fictional point off the coast of his real home, the small lobstering town of Stonington, Maine. This revelation may be a disappointment for readers entranced by the setting of Coomer's novel, Pocketful of Names. To visit the inspiration for his beautiful prose and captivating story would be like curling up between the pages of the book, which is something I wanted to do--for the first 300 pages. More on that later.

At the beginning of Coomer's 10th novel, lobsterman Arno Weed is the owner and sole inhabitant of Ten Acre No Nine. When he dies, his great-niece, Hannah Bryant, receives title to the island. A young and successful artist in New York City, Hannah intends merely to put her uncle's affairs in order. But days on the island turn into months as she realizes that solitude suits her nature and her profession better than the city does. She lives for years like this, drawing her inspiration from the ever-changing landscape, collecting driftwood and weathered stones for the artwork she creates and ships off to her gallery.

Then a lost dog swims ashore, heralding a series of interruptions. A teenage boy arrives on Hannah's doorstep; her half-sister, the boy's teacher, has sent him to hide out from his abusive father. The boy makes friends from neighboring islands and invites them for visits on Ten Acre No Nine. In writing about these relationships, Coomer shines: The characters' complex emotions come across in easy and natural dialogue. Hannah grows to appreciate and need her new companionship, but these people also bring secrets that must be confronted--the biggest one being a dark truth about Arno Weed's side job.

So goes the novel's first and better part, a candid commentary on art, love, work, and play. But by the end of part two, every mystery has been solved, every challenge surmounted, often effortlessly, many through coincidences too convenient to be plausible. One problem is even rectified through a vivid daydream! This notion contradicts a statement Hannah has made earlier: "There was nothing to be resolved, no transforming catharsis in memory. Time did not heal all wounds. The hurt persisted, and like pearls, the pain survived deep in a center...." Contrary to Hannah's expectation, the novel's resolution scrubs life to a tidy sheen, which is unfortunate: Nothing rings truer than a messy ending.

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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