23 December 2012

Anita Diamant: The Last Days of Dogtown (2005)

The blurb on the back cover of Anita Diamant's The Last Days of Dogtown gives a useful introduction to this novel, which is set in Dogtown near the fishing town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts:

'[T]he village of Dogtown is peopled by widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and "witches." Among the inhabitants of this hamlet are Black Ruth, who dresses as a man and works as a stonemason; Mrs. Stanley, an imperious madam whose grandson, Sammy, comes of age in her brothel; Oliver Younger, who survives a miserable childhood at the hands of his aunt; and Cornelius Finson, a freed slave. At the center of it all is Judy Rhines, a fiercely independent soul, deeply lonely, who nonetheless builds a life for herself against all imaginable odds.'

The 'real' Dogtown is now a deserted village remembered mainly for the inspirational boulders Roger Ward Babson paid workers to carve there (see link below), but Diamant's fictional construction, as the book title suggests, fictionally reconstructs the final years of Dogtown as an inhabited village.

The story begins in 1814 and continues over a number of years, and as the blurb suggests, Dogtown is depicted as a community of outsiders where (by 19th century values at least) social transgression is rife: Mrs Stanley's sex workers Sally and Molly have a happy (but hidden) lesbian relationship while her grandson seems to be asexual; the sexual relationship between the white Judy and the black Cornelius is to shock Cape Ann and drive Judy to Cambridge in the end; and the alcoholic Stanwood manifests distinctly psychotic tendencies: in parts, the reader can almost imagine, say, Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The Last Days in Dogtown moves through a series of tableaux concerning one or two people as opposed to a strictly chronological sequence, and it follows from this that there is no central character. Nor is the style consistent: pages of cartoonish humor (Tammy Younger and her gruesome teeth extractions, Stanwood's brief (and very unconvincing) conversion) are counterpointed by pathos, by the triumph of different kinds of love over the material, making this a very moving – if slightly uneven – read.

The Babson Boulders

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