Charlie Finn, the protagonist of Charles Martin’s “Water From My Heart,” is a Harvard-educated, poker-playing, corporate-bamboozling, boat-building fishing guide who also happens to be a drug-dealing Everyman with a penchant for expensive sunglasses, boats, fine coffee and beautiful women.
He also has a heart of stone, and no emotional ties except to his latest boss — a drug czar catering to the rich and famous in Miami — and the boss’ family, especially the kids, a teenaged boy named Zaul and a young girl named Maria.
When Zaul gets in over his head and Maria is mauled by a pit bull during a drug deal gone wrong, Zaul flees the country for his father’s Costa Rican estate. Charlie, at the behest of his boss, goes looking for the boy.
Martin builds a complicated and what at times seems gratuitous back story for Charlie, as evidenced by his many areas of expertise (see list above). But it’s a back story that serves the story well. Once Charlie arrives in Costa Rica to begin his search for Zaul, he’ll need all of his skills to find him.
Of course, it’s not only Zaul that Charlie is trying to find. Humbled by the honest and innocent people of the Central American countryside, Charlie begins a frank reappraisal of his own life. With the help of an impossibly perfect woman named Paulina and her young daughter, Charlie learns how kindness and faith and honest work make for a more meaningful existence. When he discovers that Paulina’s past is inextricably linked to his own former actions as an answer man for a ruthless developer, he vows not only to right himself, but to revitalize a rural community devastated by American corporate greed and a calamitous natural disaster.
As such, he spends as much time digging out an old well as he does searching for Zaul. Day after day, he’s lowered into the earth with a shovel and a bucket. And each day he resurfaces, filthy and exhausted and seemingly little closer to finding the water that once sustained an entire mountainside. The metaphor is perhaps indelicate, but it allows Martin to explore a beautiful Nicaraguan community, and for this alone the heavy-handedness can be forgiven.
The novel moves toward its inevitable conclusion, and if Charlie’s atonement is scripted and the author’s style sometimes clichéd, it’s also hopeful and sweet. For all its dark subject matter, “Water From my Heart” is at its core a novel about the goodness in people, and how the best of those good people can save even the most damnable among us.
Minneapolis writer Peter Geye is the author of “The Lighthouse Road.” His new novel will be published next year.