The old expression that if you live long enough you become a stranger in your own place applies to Shelter Island as much —more? — than any other place. Physical changes in a landscape or on a street added to new customs and neighbors transform the familiar into the barely recognizable.
In Jason Shields’ slim, evocative, precisely written new collection of short memoirs, a story and two poems, “Louis’ Beach & Other Writings,” the author remembers an Island now gone or passing quickly.
His title points to his purpose, since Louis’ Beach is what long time residents refer to that gently curving strip of sand that we newcomers call Crescent Beach.
But Mr. Shields is writing not so much to reclaim or remember a lost time. Instead, like the best memoirs, he’s elevating and honoring the past.
Time fleeting and carrying with it hard to fathom changes is painful, but the young are spared that condition. In his book, the author writes from the perspective of a child: “I was a young boy with no idea that the world did change, with or without my approval, and was under no obligation to advise me of its temperament.”
Mr. Shields writes of the “old embers” of memory, and in “Louis’ Beach” he tenderly fans those sparks to flickering life.
Early on he casually uses the word “epiphany,” a clue to what the book is about. The word traces its literary roots to James Joyce and his story collection, “Dubliners.” The idea, turned into art by Joyce, is to take the everyday, inconsequential events that are small enough to be overlooked and forgotten, and preserve them as gifts to treasure, turning them mysterious and radiant.
It’s not the dramatic or traumatic that forms our character so much as the ordinary.
A journalist — he was editor of the Reporter at one point — and a long-time nature and fishing columnist for the paper, Mr. Shields sets these memoirs in childhood, but others are promised. Now running his own contracting business on the Island, he tells the reader, “I’m writing now of a time between toy shovels and steel ones.”
The author has a light, but penetrating touch describing the difficult progression of boyhood, conveying that baffling predicament of being a mystery to yourself. This is especially apparent when girls come into the picture. “They wore tube tops and cut-off jeans, showing off their tanned midriffs and legs,” he writes. “Lipstick and eyeliner accentuated their faces and even their braces had an alluring aspect. I wanted to be alone with them, having no idea why.”
A cagey storyteller, Mr. Shields knows how to hook the reader from the beginning. You see this with openings that include, “Everyone has a jellyfish story, and this is mine.” Or the irresistible first sentence of “The Safari Car”: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were bad kids.”
There’s a sly, funny and also somehow sad story of duck hunting with Robert Hughes, the best selling author. “A stout man with a ruddy complexion, Bob could easily pass for a hardened rummy,” Mr. Shields writes, going on to portray him as someone who “emanated genius, a trait I found intimidating. I was a child and he was a man. I wasn’t obliged to join his audience and not expected to understand his references. I could take Bob at his best and leave him at his worst.”
The style throughout is fluid, refined and direct, but when he has to, Mr. Shields can break free, piling metaphor on metaphor to describe a boy’s imagination liberated by the sight of a unique hood ornament. “I was a fish entranced by a shiny lure, a crypt robber mesmerized by a gold laden tomb, a scientist riveted by a hence unknown physical property. I had discovered the holy grail of eleven-year-old boys.”
The book holds many pleasures, including that conjuring of a lost time, reclaimed not just for the author, but for the reader, unearthing sorrows and silliness buried by all of us as we put distance between the child and the adult.
But the true pleasure of this slim book is the beauty of Mr. Shields’ sentences. Here’s the opening of “Flatfish” — the reference to “squaws” means “ducks.”
“By now the grasses sway free of the high slush ice along the west bank of Coecles Harbor and you can smell the mud again and feel it under the heel of your boot. Over the point across the water a purple glow lurks below black clouds … It’s light enough to see the bumpy outcroppings along the bank; and I drag my onion bag, feeling with a toe for gullies in the mud. Offshore old squaws splash down and commence to gossip. Their rippling squawks pass for ancient chants riddled with vowels, a timeless language of unequivocal truth mocking all we’ve become ever since the first lie.”
“Louis’ Beach & Other Writings” is at the Library and the Shelter Island Pharmacy, and other places around town. The author can be reached at [email protected]