One afternoon, Marianne gets a call from her ex-boyfriend and one-time fiancé, Eric. His great-aunt holds the deed to a crumbling seaside motel in Florida, and she’d like to turn it into “something more creative.”

“She wants us to start a school,” Eric says. “A school for writing.”

Eric is a novelist, Marianne a poet; they met in Manhattan, where they were pursuing MFAs. Now they’re both struggling to make ends meet. A few hours before Eric’s call, Marianne had opened a letter from her Brooklyn landlord: the building was to be converted to condos and, unless Marianne can afford the price hike, she’ll have to move out. Guess who can’t afford the price hike?

“She wants it to be a place for Christian writers,” Eric goes on, “but that’s perfect, isn’t it? It’s what we always talked about.”

“Eric,” Marianne says, “it’s what we always joked about. There’s a difference.”

Belle Boggs is a witty, incisive writer, and “The Gulf,” her first novel, deftly satirizes everything from for-profit schools to the MFA industrial complex, American liberals and conservatives, and the hypocrisies of both sides.

The gulf at the center of the book is not only geographical; it also conjures the political, cultural and economic gulf in contemporary American life. Then, too, there’s the gulf between your ideals and the choices you make, or are forced to make, or imagine that you are forced to make.

Needless to say, Marianne flies down to Florida. Things move fast: Eric’s Wall Street-based brother, Mark, is handling the business end of things, and they soon find themselves in bed with an evangelical organization with far-right ties offering investment. Marianne’s concerns over their partnership — as well as their exploitation of the students — become more difficult to tamp down.

It would have been easy for Boggs to condescend to the earnest, devout students who soon arrive. Most vivid are Davonte Gold, née Donald Goldston, a down-on-his luck “entertainer” trying to engineer a comeback, and Janine Gray, a teacher and mother who writes poems about Florida coma patient Terri Schiavo. But there’s no condescension here. These are fully realized characters, each with their own weaknesses and worries.

Scores of recent books, of every genre, have attempted to bridge the looming gulf in American culture and politics. It’s to Boggs’ credit that she doesn’t. When Janine and Marianne strike up an unlikely friendship, their relationship doesn’t have to stand for everything that’s gone wrong in this country. Instead, two women take time to talk poetry — and, at least for now, that’s enough.

For all the satire, Boggs’ novel is also deeply felt, and moving. Perhaps its greatest strength is Boggs’ delicate, hard-won sympathy for her characters, and the sympathy they develop for one another.

 

Natalia Holtzman was named a 2018 emerging critic by the National Book Critics Circle. Her writing can be found in Electric Literature and the Ploughshares Blog, and is forthcoming from the Believer.

The Gulf
By: Belle Boggs.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 307 pages, $16.