Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Decline of Fishes: Review by Alex Miller

Peter Anastas, a member of the generation of Gloucester writers influenced by Charles Olson, is by now a familiar figure for attentive readers on the North Shore. Having adopted Olson’s pattern as a writer-plus-activist, Anastas has made a career out of hearty involvement with his own place. His emphatic view is that, for an author of his disposition, citizenship and art must grow through and out of one another-hence his dual role in Gloucester as a writer and, at various stages, a social worker, a protester, a teacher at community colleges, and a sitter on numerous committees. Now in the mature flowering of his career, and more hounded than ever by questions of responsibility toward his endangered home landscape, he has released what he refers to as “the most personal book I have written.” Decline of Fishes, whose Greek-American-writer character Jason Makrides bares a massive resemblance to Anastas, is an arresting work of storytelling, which functions as a crash course in local politics and economics while managing to be neither preachy nor fact-clogged.

Set in 1993, Decline of Fishes narrates the struggle of several Gloucester residents to resist the building of a mall on the city’s waterfront; a project which, according to local regulations, is prohibited due to the fact that it depletes the docking and loading space available to working fishermen. Additionally, the mall is seen by many Gloucesterites, including Jason Makrides, a social worker and former novelist, Allison, the intelligent wife of a local pro-mall development committee member, who is having an affair with Makrides, Nina Calogero, a tenacious fisherman’s wife, and Frank Acciaio, an aged and wise sculptor and connoisseur of local flavor, as nothing less than a stain on the city’s “soul”: an exploitative and trivializing project that will poison Gloucester’s home-grown industry while inviting more rich out-of-towners to come in, build condos and luxury boutiques, and speed up a destructive process of gentrification. Though much of the novel’s action takes place in committee rooms, restaurants, and around kitchen tables, where those resistant to the mall discuss its implications for the city and strategize about how to defeat the development committee’s request for special permission to build on property reserved for the fishing industry, the lives and struggles of the characters remains its focus, and as a result, it flows smoothly and remains, perhaps surprisingly, a page-turner.

Gloucester, like many communities, is really struggling to define itself-and hang onto itself,” says Anastas. “I am an activist; I have lived through this struggle, and I wanted to participate in any conversation that would help people understand how real this place is.” In Decline of Fishes, he has certainly done this. By the time we are ushered into the meeting where the mall will at last be voted up or down, the tension is wound harrowingly high. But the tension of Allison and Makrides’ Romeo-and-Juliet affair, which breaches warring clans, and of the Gloucester Daily Times reporter Lori Lambert’s internal struggle to reconcile painful memories of an abusive fisherman-father with increasing sympathies for the fishing families who would suffer an economic body-blow from the mall’s presence, is just as involving. Decline of Fishes proves to be as much about the inner lives of its major characters as it is about the eco-cultural life of a city. In fact, the implication is that these two aspects are, ultimately, synonymous.

--Alex Miller

Decline of Fishes
By Peter Anastas,
Back Shore Press, 382 pp., $18.95

(This review appeared in the November 29, 2010 online edition of North Shore Art Throb)