In Gregory Brown's debut novel, "The Lowering Days," the weight of the past bears down with a vengeance on its tortured characters. Set in coastal Maine, where the Penobscot River flows to the sea, the story follows three families whose lives intertwine in a contemporary Greek tragedy.
Arnoux Ames, a respected boatbuilder, and his wife, Falon, who edits a local newspaper, have three sons. One of them, David, narrates much of the novel as an adult looking back on long-ago dramas. Lyman Creel, a lobsterman, and his wife, Grace, have a son and a daughter, Wren, who is David's sometime girlfriend. Adam Greenwind, a Penobscot out of work since the local paper mill was shuttered, makes a life in the woods with his 14-year-old daughter, Molly.
Arson that destroys that mill sets the plot in motion. Yet painful history — between the families and, more generally, between Penobscots and whites — always simmers below the surface. Lyman, whose family once owned the mill, has been tarred as "the Indian killer" ever since his adolescence when his Native rival for Falon's affections died in a fall off a cliff. Now he can't forgive Arnoux for getting the girl he deserved. Nor can he abide that this Vietnam War deserter is more esteemed than he is, a decorated vet.
As much as Brown invests his work with realistic detail about the natural world and the worlds of fishing, aviation and more, he's a mythmaker at heart. As a novelist, he's half Barry Lopez, half Louise Erdrich. Even his white characters find sacred wisdom in legends passed down by ancestors. As David's uncle says, these are "gifts that we're supposed to keep safe."
Brown writes a fluid, lyrical prose that escorts us deep into the emotional lives of his characters. Yet he undercuts his story several times when his plotting veers off course. It's hard to fathom how Falon, an ardent champion of Native causes, avoids pariah status after publishing an editorial defending the mill's destruction. Nor can we understand why Molly's unexplained absence from school, after the fire, isn't immediately declared suspicious.
What's more, the teenage David is given to sage pronouncements that seem far beyond his years: "I stayed up late thinking about how second chances were one of the great American lies." Really, at age 14?
Brown is juggling a lot of important themes in addition to the past's heavy hand on the present: environmental degradation, the shameful treatment of Native Americans, toxic masculinity, the torch-passing from one generation to the next. And they threaten to undermine the book's coherence.
Yet the author still manages to elevate the central conflict, between Arnoux and Lyman, to a monumental, elemental sphere. It's as if Paris and Menelaus of "The Iliad" were clashing over the beautiful Helen. At heart, both of these Mainers are decent men. Yet their bruised pride and need for revenge overcome their scruples. They have nowhere to go but down.
Dan Cryer is the author of a biography, "Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church," and a memoir, "Forgetting My Mother: A Blues From the Heartland."
The Lowering Days
By: Gregory Brown.
Publisher: Harper, 288 pages, $26.99.