When John Casey’s novel Spartina deservedly won the National Book Award for 1989, it was announced as the first volume of “a long cycle of fiction set in Rhode Island”; but its successor, The Half-life of Happiness, set in Virginia and a very different kind of book, is clearly not part of that project.
The main character of Spartina, Dick Pierce, is a fortyish Rhode Island “swamp Yankee” who makes a modest living from the waters and shores of Block Island Sound. He gathers clams and quahogs, traps lobsters and crabs, and fishes for swordfish, striped bass, bluefish—whatever the sea will yield; he grudgingly arranges clambakes for local nobs and summer people; he slowly builds excellent boats. He can never quite forget that his forebears once owned much of the land that others are now developing very profitably, and at sea and ashore he hardly conceals his pride and bad temper.
In this spare but eventful book, Pierce is drawn into an affair with a well-born young woman who works for the state conservation department. He gets her pregnant; he barely escapes arrest for his partly innocent involvement in drug running; he comes to an understanding with his resentful but loyal wife; he finds the money to complete his masterwork, the fifty-foot fishing boat Spartina, which he saves from destruction during a hurricane by taking her out to sea alone. But the novel’s plot is not the point. Though Casey is not an eloquent or even particularly fluent writer, he imagines his main character with impressive delicacy and thoroughness. We see and hear only what Pierce does, and his thoughts are the only ones we know directly. And this unobtrusive concentration persuades us that we understand very well his stubborn, unschooled, self-reliant integrity—his “virtue” in both the everyday meaning and the old sense of “manliness.”
Spartina is by no means a short book, but The Half-life of Happiness is nearly twice as long, and far more ambitious. It tells the story of the failing marriage of two talented and privileged people, and its effects on their children and on the husband’s abortive campaign for Congress in 1978. Mike Reardon, a 1963 Georgetown Law School graduate, did volunteer legal work for the civil rights movement in Georgia and briefly served as a naval officer in Vietnam before becoming an assistant to a Democratic congressman sometime before Watergate. He married, fathered two daughters, and entered private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia, early in the Carter administration, when the book’s main action takes place.
Mike is about forty, he’s good with boats, and he is easily irritated, but he shares little else with Dick Pierce. Both Mike and his moody wife, Joss, belong to a world of achievement and power that Pierce’s acquaintance with the Rhode Island gentry has taught him deeply to mistrust. Mike’s Boston-Irish father was an aide to Franklin Roosevelt and a high official in the Democratic National Committee; Joss’s patrician …