Jeffrey Lewis’s “Bealport: A Novel of a Town” is a measured study in contrasts: an inventively structured work of fiction that also taps into the longstanding tradition of socially relevant fiction. Lewis takes a host of bold structural risks in telling this story, but its meat is the way in which economics and institutions by turn support and frustrate those who depend upon them. “Bealport” is arranged in an unpredictable, tautly episodic manner, but it shares primal concerns with notable works by John Steinbeck and Emile Zola – as well as an impassioned cry against injustice of all forms.

“Bealport” the novel and Bealport the town both center on a shoe manufacturer called Norumbega. For over a century, the company has been at the heart of this small Maine town: providing its residents with employment and contributing to its sense of identity. A private equity firm, Madrigal Partners, purchases it, and initially the townspeople are cautiously optimistic: Roger Keysinger, the investor behind this maneuver, seems genuinely interested in the business – and it doesn’t hurt that he gives the factory employees a raise to begin this new era of the business. Readers, and anyone familiar with the usual trajectory when a private equity firm buys a business, will likely be more skeptical. “Bealport” isn’t so much a tale of suspense as it is a gradual progression towards a bleak finale that’s all too visible.

Jeffrey Lewis

Lewis, who splits his time between homes in Castine and Los Angeles, opens the novel with a series of vignettes that lay the groundwork for what’s to come. A dissolute man in his mid-30s, Billy Hutchins, returns to Bealport after a failed attempt at life in California; in the opening scene, Billy’s family-man older brother Gary takes part in a demolition derby. “First prize was five hundred dollars,” Lewis writes. “You could keep a car on the road for five hundred dollars.” It’s a potent image, this sense of breaking elements of one’s world apart, all for the sake of an amount of money that will only allow you to make it to the next week to destroy a car all over again. It’s a telling note on which to open the novel, and one that establishes both the mood of desperation felt by many of the novel’s characters and which foreshadows the collisions – both literal and emotional – that loom for many of them.

Another early chapter puts the purchase of Norumbega in context, as the Rev. John Quigley turns down an offer from two representatives of a technology company to place a cellular transmitter in the tower of the Congregational Church over which he presides. “He had done it because the town was already saved,” Lewis writes. “He had done it because Madrigal Partners was investing in Bealport.” Though he has secrets of his own, as nearly every character in this novel does, Rev. Quigley gradually emerges as one of the novel’s more admirable figures, attempting to find the right balance between sustainable economics and his own principles.

Lewis tells the story of Bealport in a series of short chapters, covering the perspectives of many townspeople and sometimes moving into a more omniscient perspective to give a sense of the community’s mentality as a whole: “Several of the girls, on account of the raise, were talking about a shopping expedition to the Target in Bangor. It’s what happened. If you had a bit more money, you patronized the Walmart instead of the Dollar Store. If you were feeling flush, you went to the Target.”

Sometimes, this gives way to more idiosyncratic takes on the region’s retailing: “Martha was a huge fan of the Bangor Target store, though she was made uncomfortable by that phony French slanging of the name that everybody, and particularly Dawn Smith and Ging Richards, were putting out there as though it was so cute and clever. Martha took it to be French-Canadian, anyway.” Moments like these also allow for some humor to creep into the proceedings, which is welcome. This is a slow-motion tragedy, both personally and sociologically; a few moments of levity serve as a counterpoint.

At times, Lewis will pause the action and delve into the city’s past: the history of the island on which it’s situated, a long-running dispute over the repair of a bridge, the process of how Norumbega goes about making a shoe, and how the different departments each contribute to the final product. These quietly specific scenes help to make the setting feel more unique. Even as some of its characters can take on archetypal qualities – the chapter in which Billy appears is titled “The Return of the Prodigal Son” – the particulars keep “Bealport” from feeling like an overly broad take on the decline of manufacturing, widening class divides and the ominous fate of labor in the United States.

Though Lewis’s tone is measured, plenty of righteous anger lies just below the surface. It’s the little details that make this novel sing, however – and it’s what makes its conclusion that much more crushing, however inevitable.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory” and has reviewed books for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

Comments are no longer available on this story