Monday, April 20, 2009

Broken Trip: A Review by Richard M. Amero

Broken Trip (Glad Day Books, 2004) by Peter Anastas consists of ten short stories that are tied together because they interact with the professional activities of Tony Russo, a welfare case worker, who provides his clients with shelter, food, medical treatment, and pats of encouragement. Reading the book is something like drinking a martini. At first one feels the astringent taste and then the BANG hits you. Not all the stories have the same punch, but as a group they pack a stunning wallop. There is so much agony, suffering and loss among some of the characters that they remind me of sinners in Dante’s Inferno, whose obsessions were similarly painful and everlasting. Perhaps a saving factor in this collection of down-and-out stories is that they end, as poet George Oppen puts it [in an epigraph] at the beginning of the book, in a place where all human emotions ultimately founder.

While the book has a Gloucester setting and most of the characters are involved with the demise of the fishing industry, there is more to the book than Gloucester, for its basic theme is poverty of body and mind, a poverty that reaches across America and the world. Some of the people depicted are as horrible as human beings can get, short of Buchenwald. While not an intellectual novel on the surface at least (remember the delayed reaction), nurses Amanda and Rochelle, in “The Psyche Unit,” represent opposite points of view regarding the question: Is it mind or is it environment that dictates human behavior? Since so many of the damned are dope addicts, the answer would seem to be environment and the treatment DETOX. Yet, by itself, the treatment doesn’t work, so the force of consciousness can be brought into play. That is why nurse Rochelle grieves over the suicide of Terrence, a junkie, who demonstrated insight but could not control his destructive urges.

The most interesting character in the book for me is Larry, Rochelle’s understanding husband. For all his good will, Tony functions as a device. It is through him that the stories are told in a concise reportorial manner that shifts from inner thoughts and outer taunting dialogue. Tony may understand the world, but Larry sustains his wife Rochelle, who has had to cope with abuse from her dope-afflicted mother and Roy, her mother’s lover, and her murder of Roy. Why does Roy act as he does? Why do most dope addicts act as they do?

The Gloucester emphasis appears most prominently in “Skag,” (heroin). Here the most unlikely of trios go out to sea in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to catch cod on the Stellwagen Bank. The miracle is that they succeed. There is a wisp of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in this section, but the wisp soon merges into a story of victory not over the sea but over self. All three men—Shitter, Frankie and Jimmy, but principally last-minute replacement captain Jimmy—achieve a victory that is more substantial than Terrence’s defeatist views of himself. Like the hired man in Frost’s great poem, Jimmy prepares to die with the sense that at sea he has at least conquered—or forgotten—his demons. Perhaps here is the answer to why men, from time immemorial, have gone down to the sea in ships. In doing so, they escape from the exactions and turmoils of land for work that is so bracing, energetic and dangerous that they forget themselves. This is the HIGH addicts don’t have and the reason they go to sea instead of to the lab.

There are many surprises in Anastas’ book. His criticism of the Department of Public Welfare, now changed to Department of Transitional Assistance, is justified at least for people who accept the burden of being their brother’s keeper. It is not Gloucester alone that produces a class of half-civilized or worse people. Anastas doesn’t dwell on the people in the barrooms and on the belt lines in fish factories; but these nameless people are as lonely, bored and unhappy as the principals and spend too much of their time sniping about the actions of their neighbors.

One of the bigger surprises is that the drugs that infest Gloucester and, for that matter, all of the Massachusetts North Shore, do not come from the fishing boats—though some do—but from dealers in Boston. The book does not propose a cure for addiction, unless it be through methadone, therapy and analysis. Except perhaps for Tolstoy, there is no reason why a writer of a naturalistic work of fiction should try to solve all the world’s problems.

Finally, “Has Gloucester changed and not for the better?” The “Broken Trip” is when a boat returns without fish. Anastas does not give alternatives; but certainly the 19th and 20th century fishing town of Gloucester has changed. As counselor Julie in “Getting Straight” says to Jade, who claims she never gave her long live-in companion “Doc” love, “Love is a lot of things.” By the same token, some portion of the degraded, desperate and deranged underclass in Gloucester may, like Rochelle, arise from the wallow, the filth and the stench. As Dante has written, after the Inferno is Purgatory. For most of us Paradise is out of reach.

(Richard M. Amero is a writer and historian, who lives in San Diego. A Gloucester native, Amero attended Black Mountain and Bard colleges. He was a prime mover in the restoration of Balboa Park and has written extensively on the park, on San Diego and California history. His writings, including essays on Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Hart Crane, James Joyce, Dostoevsky and the Gloucester novelist and playwright Jonathan Bayliss, can be found on his website

Salem News, April 8, 2004

'Broken Trip' a compelling,
brutal tale of North Shore

by Rae Franceour

Broken Trip

By Peter Anastas. Glad Day Books, P.O. Box
, Enfield, NH 03748
, 2004. 250 pages. $16.

Will Gloucester survive the slow, torturous
decline of its fishing industry? On the eastern
edge of Boston's North Shore, this rugged,
breathtakingly beautiful city is amassing a body
of its own literature. Gloucester's stories are
notable for their depiction of a heroic culture that
in recent decades battles despair.

Peter Anastas, a Gloucester resident himself, has
brilliantly chronicled the struggle in Broken
Trip, an unusual book that straddles fiction and
nonfiction. For lack of a better name, it is labeled
a novel. And though there is some continuity
provided between chapters, it is really a series of
telling episodes in the life of Gloucester and some
of her people. Love, loyalty and family; drugs
and alcohol; fishing; incest and violence; poverty
and its accompanying depravity are strong
themes in this deceptively easy to read, but hard
to digest book.

As the recently retired director of advocacy and
housing at Action in Gloucester, Anastas is
acutely attuned to the hardships this city endures.
His book's title, Broken Trip, is a localism for a
fishing trip that doesn't meet expectations due to
weather, technical problems, or lack of fish. And
though Anastas wears many hats on the North
- intellectual, frequently published author,
father of the respected young author Benjamin
Anastas, resident expert on poet Charles Olson -
his 30 years working at Action indelibly inscribed
themselves on his writer's soul.

I marveled at the simplicity of Anastas' language
- simple, declarative sentences that gently take
you by the hand with words like "Everybody
knew when the checks came" or "For nearly 10
years, Jimmy Skag had been living at the
homeless shelter" and draw you deep, deep into
the troubled lives of the book's characters.

Tony, a Gloucester caseworker, links stories,
characters and hardships to one another. The
one man with something tangible to offer that
might sustain rather than corrode lives, Tony has
the resources and the mindset to help.
Characters show up at his office, sometimes
simply in need, sometimes overtly hostile but
desperate. He seems to have seen it all. And
since he's one of them, a Gloucester native
without pretense, he's approachable. Anastas
gives Tony his own trials, as well. As a result, the
stable figure amid those in terrible crisis does not
come off as paternalistic - a credit to Anastas,
who must have struggled with this very problem

There are a couple of recurring characters, but
nothing close to what readers would expect in a
traditional novel. In the second chapter, "The
Snow Man," we are introduced to Rochelle,
whose father was gunned down by the police
and whose mother died of an overdose.
Rochelle, a bright and talented young woman, is
left with a baby sister to raise. Tony encourages
her to apply for public assistance to help with
expenses after she drops out of school. At the
end of the book, Rochelle shows up again, years
later, as an inspired psychiatric nurse for whom
Tony serves as both peer and confidante.

At the Cut, Anastas' last published work - a
memoir about growing up in Gloucester in the1940s -
provided clues to what was to come with
Broken Trip. Anastas is unflinching in his
portrayals of incest, violence, sex, drug use and
domestic chaos. Some of his writing about these
matters is utterly poetic, especially when he
describes Skag getting high on heroin or a
mother reminiscing about her own early highs as
she watches her drugged daughter act out on the
street. Other scenes in Broken Trip are brutal.
Be forewarned. And Anastas' way with dialogue
is impressive. Not once does he aim for anything
other than simplicity of language and brevity in
description; yet, by the end of Broken Trip, we
are completely absorbed - or is it ensnared? He
has us by the heart.

When A Perfect Storm was first published,
author Sebastian Junger worried about how
those in Gloucester (a community he loved)
would react. For the most part, people took the
story about the hard-living, ill-fated group of
fishermen in stride. Broken Trip is a much,
much tougher book. In the chapter titled "Psych
Unit," an outsider who chose to live in nearby
Rockport tells Rochelle, "Maybe that's why
Gloucester frightens me so much. It's all too

Anastas doesn't judge. His writing carefully,
dispassionately reveals one aspect of the
Gloucester he has come to know. As Tony takes
his last walk home from his job, which was
terminated due to cuts in funding, he considers
the neighborhoods, the fishing industry's decline,
and the years he'd spent working for its people.
"I guess it's been a broken trip," he concludes,
without regret.

Gloucester Daily Times Tuesday, April 22, 2004

Hard Times in Anastas' Stories: the American dream slides out of reach

By Greg Cook
Staff writer

The title of Peter Anastas' new book, "Broken Trip," comes from local slang for an unprofitable fishing voyage, but in his stories it becomes a metaphor for the devastating effects of poverty in Gloucester

"What I'm trying to do is show what it feels like, what does it really feel like, to have a low-paying job; what does it feel like to live on the edge? When I wrote the book (in the 1990s), the country was in one of its biggest economic booms ... and I was trying to think about the enormous irony of this huge wealth that was being generated in America and people here in Gloucester not participating in it in any significant way," Anastas said.

The 66-year-old Page Street resident reads from his "novel in stories," as he calls it, at The Bookstore on Main Street at 7 p.m. Thursday. The text is augmented by a photo essay by Gloucester documentary photographer Ernest Morin.

In one story, a woman turns to heroin to help ease the pain after her boyfriend is wrongly gunned down by police. Their daughter struggles for a normal life, living with her grandmother, taking care of her baby sister, going to school, but this is threatened after her mother dies and her sister's father steals into their home to claim his daughter and attacks the older sister.

In another tale, a woman falls into trouble when she becomes enamored of a bad boy. In a story inspired by an actual crime, a damaged boy and his friend savagely murder a homeless man at his camp in the woods along the railway tracks.

They are tales, told in a deceptively simple manner, about generations of parents and children struggling to forge relationships amidst ravaged lives. Junkies overdose. The state Department of Social Services removes children from homes. Jobs disappear. People apply for social services, medical care, food stamps, housing subsidies. Anastas takes an unblinking look at drug and sexual abuse, AIDS and teenage pregnancy. This personal devastation is paralleled by larger collapses - the fishing industry sputtering under tighter and tighter government regulations and the social service net shrinking under corporate consolidation and government cutbacks.

If you know Gloucester, you'll recognize the taverns, fish plants and neighborhoods Anastas writes about. The book is populated by the sorts of people and places he's known here.

"It comes out of living here my whole life and knowing there's not just one Gloucester, there are a number of them," Anastas said.

Starting out, he packed fish and reported for the Gloucester Daily Times. He went on to be a social worker with the Gloucester antipoverty agency Action Inc.

"'Broken Trip' is really a book I couldn't have written unless I'd worked at Action for 30 years, because working at Action took me into the heart of the culture of poverty in Gloucester, and few people have had that experience. I felt it was my responsibility as a writer to write about it," Anastas said.

"I wanted to have a certain objectivity in the book so that I could dramatize attitudes that are prevalent in the community," Anastas said. "And really the vehicle for this is fiction because it enables you to use your imagination in dealing with reality. It enables you to expand on reality. You have a broader scope. In a nonfiction book, you're pretty much restricted to what happened and why it happened, just as you are in journalism. In fiction, you can imagine the consequences of actual events or you can imagine alternatives. In nonfiction, you have to stay with the people. In fiction, you can make them up. Every character in this book was made up."

Anastas' last book, "At the Cut," from 2002, was a frank look at his childhood in Gloucester in the 1940s. But this book, like his first, "Glooskap's Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine," looks closely at the effects of poverty.

Anastas began thinking of characters and stories in the late 1980s, but didn't begin writing until about a decade ago. He finished his latest book around 1997, but it took him a while to find a publisher. Finally, Glad Day Books decided to take it on. The Thetford, Vt.-based publisher was formed by novelists (and husband and wife) Grace Paley and Robert Nichols around 1998 to publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry addressing social change.

Speaking of Anastas' book, Paley said, "The stories are about ordinary people and how hard their lives are. This is kind of an essential fact that needs to be seen in the literary world."

Anastas explained, "I wanted to write about Gloucester and people living on the edge, as a way of writing about America. ... People need to know the America behind the myth of America. This illusion that everybody has an equal opportunity, that everybody can work, that everybody can consume. People need to know that it's a struggle for a lot of people. There are people who don't have educations. There are people who for one reason or another dropped out of high school. There are people who come out of situations of family violence. There are people who have been traumatized living in poverty. It's not fun being poor, and it's hard to get out of poverty if you don't have an education. I wanted to show that there's great humanity in poor people. The society tends to marginalize poor people - they're crooks, they're drug addicts. I wanted to put a human face on poverty."

There are glimmers of hope in Anastas' stories as people begin to turn their lives around, but the overall mood is bleak.

"One agent I sent this book to said to me, 'I like the writing, but there's no redemption.' My answer is, I don't believe in redemption. I'm an existentialist and I have an essentially tragic view of life. For me, life has no inherent meaning. The only meaning is what we give it by our acts. It's as simple as that," Anastas said.

Counselors, social service providers, medical workers and police officers, as Anastas put it, "populate the book in a quiet way." One recurring character is the welfare case worker, Tony, the son of an Italian fishing captain who serves as Anastas' alter-ego.

"What I wanted to show, not just in Gloucester, but in society at large, people tend to look down on the helping professions. They tend to look down on teachers, social workers, nurses. I wanted to show that in many ways these people are the heroes of our society. They make very little money and yet they're on the firing line. When someone is in trouble, the human service profession is there. ... These are all people who do society's dirty work. And I wanted to show, through their presence in the novel, how they help people change their lives," Anastas said.

"...Without the helping professions, many people would live less happy lives and less productive ones. I wanted to show Tony as a person who had the gift of education, unlike so many people we grew up with, and he didn't use that to enrich himself. He used that to help other people, to give to other people, and that's what life is all about. That's basically been the whole tenor of my life."

No comments: