Lewis Robinson's first novel, Water Dogs, which landed on bookstore shelves last week, is more of the closely observed, ever-so-slightly weird, elliptically exact storytelling you'd expect from the writer of the acclaimed 2003 collection Officer Friendly (HarperCollins). A sort-of mystery novel that may or may not involve a crime, Water Dogs is also the story of a family broken by the death of its patriarch, "Coach," whose three children (fail to) cope with his death in highly individualized and complicated ways.
REIMAGINING CHARACTERS: Lewis Robinson.
Bennie, our quasi-slacker protagonist, falls into a quarry during a paintball game, and Ray Labrecque, one of the players on the other team, goes missing while being pursued by Bennie's brother Littlefield. The two men also happen to be romantic rivals, which means that Ray's disappearance attracts the attention of the police. Bennie's twin sister Gwen comes home from her struggles in the New York theater, and the two of them — with Bennie's maybe-girlfriend Helen — try to figure out what happened to Ray, and whether Littlefield had anything to do with it.
Water Dogs began life as a novel "that failed, basically," after 150 pages, Robinson says. Health issues intervened as well, as after months of serious illness Robinson underwent major bowel surgery. As he recovered, he began to look at what he had written, and he realized that its adolescent characters weren't resonating with him anymore now that he'd suffered medical difficulties and found himself, as he puts it, "a little older."
His solution? Age them about 10 years and start over. And the result became Water Dogs, which skirts the expectations of both the crime novel and the traditional isn't-it-hard-to-live-in-Maine story that so many Pine Tree State writers return to again and again. "I'm sensitive to those kinds of clichûs," Robinson says. "The guy who's stuck in a town and can't get out." Littlefield and his two siblings did get out, for a while, and all three of them came back, which places them in a strange cross-grained relationship with the rest of their hometown's population. Water Dogs also moves like a crime novel, with Bennie investigating and uncovering tantalizing hints about the events of the night he fell into the quarry, but in the end it's not interested in the crime (if there was one). It's interested in what happens to the characters who, like the reader, know part but not all of what happened. How do they react? And how will they react once they know that they might never know the whole story?
"I wanted to tell the story at one remove," Robinson says, adding that an earlier draft was in Bennie's first-person voice. Moving it to the third person pushes the reader just far enough away to see how Bennie's armor of aloofness colors his perceptions and actions. In earlier drafts, too, Bennie's brother Littlefield was a more peripheral character, but as Robinson went through painstaking revisions, Littlefield and his anguish became more central, even as Martha — the inamorata of both Ray and Littlefield who Robinson professes is his favorite character in the book — moved into a smaller role.
All of this took, in the end, about four years from the restart. "I'm just a slow writer," Robinson says, who drafts and drafts, "circling around things" before finally zeroing in and getting them right.
First novels are often autobiographical, and Water Dogs has its autobiographical elements — like Bennie, for example, Robinson did a stint in New York City as an art mover — but it doesn't fall into the trap of some Maine literature, which is the tendency to write as if growing up in Maine is itself of enough interest to sustain a story. Robinson isn't Bennie. He's married (to CC) and has a nine-month-old daughter Maisie. He coaches middle-school basketball at Waynflete, and teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program. He is, in short, what Bennie might have been if he hadn't given up.
Water Dogs | by Lewis Robinson | Random House | 240 pages | $25
New baby, restored health, new book: "I'm ready to celebrate this," Robinson says. He's quick to caution that it "isn't the kind of book that's going to appeal to everyone," but Water Dogs has more than enough appeal to make us hope we don't have to wait another six years for its successor.
Alex Irvine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEWIS ROBINSON | Longfellow Books, 1 Monument Way, Portland | January 29 at 7 pm | RiverRun Bookstore, 20 Congress St, Portsmouth, New Hampshire | February 5 at 7 pm | Free