Wednesday 23 October 2019

Paradise Lost during a gin-soaked New Jersey honeymoon

Fiction: Cape May

Chip Cheek

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €18.99

Simmering ... Chip Cheek’s debut novel is a gripping read
Simmering ... Chip Cheek’s debut novel is a gripping read
Cape May

Anne Cunningham

In late September 1957, two very young newly-weds arrive in Cape May, a seaside resort in New Jersey, on their honeymoon. They plan to stay for a fortnight before returning to smalltown Georgia for the rest of their married lives, where Henry will work for a railway company and Effie will have babies and keep house. These are their modest aspirations for their future as an ordinary, decent Southern couple. Until they meet Clara and her entourage, that is.

Cape May is not how Effie remembers it from her childhood summers. The holiday season is over and the town is deserted, most of the houses locked up for the winter. There's a single grocery store and a diner that's still open and both have a desolate air about them. Effie wants to go home early and although Henry wants to stay - he's never seen the sea before and he loves Cape May, deserted though it is - he reluctantly agrees. "Henry felt hurt and angry at first - it was rotten of her to be sad, to say things were dull after what they had shared - but soon he felt as though a pall had risen from them, now that their honeymoon was ruined." This first inkling that all is not well between the happy couple is a toxic seed that embeds itself into the rest of their honeymoon. And the rest of their lives.

On the Friday night before their planned departure they meet Clara, who's spending the weekend in Cape May with her illicit lover, Max, and Max's teenage half-sister, Alma. Clara is larger than life, and Henry is immediately smitten. "She was in her early thirties, he guessed, and big, not just physically big but aura big, the way Jayne Mansfield would be if she could step out of the screen at the drive-in."

Effie remembers Clara being a friend of her older cousin during their summer holidays and describes her as a "snot-nosed bully and a harlot. […] She's not a good person."

And so this danse macabre begins. Clara is indeed 'big' on wicked charm, gin, sex and breezy hedonism. She has married well, settled in Manhattan and Max is her plaything. Young Alma is an inconvenience, but they don't allow her to cramp their style. Although later in the novel Henry allows Alma far more of his time than he ought. Plans for an early departure are abandoned as the newly-weds romp through a gin-soaked week with the wealthy revellers, sailing during the daytime and partying all night. But the cost to these young innocents abroad, in the end, is huge.

Chip Cheek's debut novel is an updated New Jersey version of Paradise Lost and he's very finely tuned in to the social mores of the 1950s. But his evocation of an out-of-season resort isn't as strong as Billy O'Callaghan's depiction of a wind-whipped November Coney Island in My Coney Island Baby. And while O'Callaghan's sex scenes are tender and poignant, the sex in Cape May is gratuitous, Bacchanalian, voyeuristic. But then they are two very different stories, one about the end of an affair and the other about the end of innocence.

Cape May has been hailed as the new Great Gatsby, but Gatsby it is not. It is, however, a gripping read; not so much the sex, maybe, in our saturated 21st Century, but rather the consequences of it and the tragic destruction of something good.

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