In “Hauling Through,” Peaks Island resident Peter Bridgford introduced us to the inhabitants of Kestrel Cove through the eyes of a confused young man, Jamie Kurtz. Kurtz, a recent college graduate adrift in a rambunctious fishing village on the eastern edge of Casco Bay, provided for many a lively escapade. Reviewing “Hauling Through” in these pages, I expressed the hope that we would hear more from Kestrel Cove and its denizens in the future. Now comes “Sweating Through.”

Ten years have passed since Kurtz abruptly shook the sand of Kestrel Cove off his feet. They have been disastrous ones for “the college boy,” as his lobstermen friends used to call Jamie to razz him: unhappy marriage, divorce, and self-sabotaged ruin of a promising university career as an historian of the American Civil War. For reasons Jamie doesn’t seem to quite understand, he has recently ended up in Verdant Beach, Florida, as research staff for an archaeological dig driven by a group whose eccentricities, even by Kestrel Cove standards, are above average.

A smattering includes Vera Bacon, an ancient stripper (she long ago danced for Gen. Patton’s son) with a dirty mouth and a heart of gold; Javier, Jamie’s Colombian driver, almost as hapless as Jamie; and Buzz Fischer, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War, who irresistibly reminded me of George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove.”

First to show up in the story is the billionaire who served as the deus ex machina in “Hauling Through.” Appearing so early on makes him more of a puppet-master in this book. He’s had plastic surgery to disguise himself and now goes by the name of John Prester. (I don’t think Bridgford’s reversal of the name of the mythical Christian priest-king of the Orient is totally coincidental.) Prester sends Jamie to Daytona Beach to pick up a mysterious “artifact” that may hold the key to the excavation, which is a burned-out shipwreck from the Civil War. He will have to stay overnight in a motel, where it just so happens the gang from Kestrel Cove is already ensconced. They have come all the way from midcoast Maine to fulfill their beloved wharf-owner’s last wish: to have his ashes scattered from an airplane over the racetrack. When they tangle with the Verdant Beach crowd, what could possibly go right?

As he demonstrated in “Hauling Through,” Bridgford has a wonderful sense of the absurd, and the sequel offers plenty of absurd situations, which he spins out with entertaining gusto. The great Suicidal Conch Fritter Challenge in a pirate-themed restaurant finds the Maine fishermen at their raunchy best. And a flight from hell in a World War II vintage bomber, escorted by planes from various arms of the military and law enforcement agencies, is hilarious.

Besides the chronicles of Kestrel Cove, Bridgford has written an historical novel of the Civil War era, “Where Eagles Dare Not Perch.” The artifact that Jamie must collect allows the author to indulge his fascination with the Civil War. It is the journal of a shiftless waterman from 1863 and tells a gripping tale of a horrifying event. It would be interesting to know how authentic the story is.

Most of the similes Bridgford comes up with are just as apposite and original as in the earlier book. In the terror of the above-mentioned flight, “Both men were clenched tighter than a rusted lug nut.” One lobsterman explains the need to taser one of their friends “with the same amount of emotion he would have shown when describing how much mayonnaise (his wife) put into her chicken salad.” But likening Jamie’s mind “grabbing hold of the disparate ideas inside of him” to “the feathered cirri of a barnacle snatching at plankton” is trying too hard.

I am sorry to say that the same might be said for much of the narrative framework of “Sweating Through.” Even accepting that John Prester is pulling the strings, contrived coincidences stretch the story’s tension almost to breaking. Prester is the only Kestrel Cove veteran who has physically changed his appearance, but all the others have changed in ways that risk leaving their characters sounding or acting stilted. One of them has given up his foul language to ensure the sexual favors of his religious wife, resorting in extremis to Vietnamese swears (which she doesn’t understand). Jamie’s perpetual angst-ridden and gauche behavior gets to be wearing. His inability to recognize an obvious and important fact for almost the entire book either defies belief or suggests a Freudian complex that the author is not equipped to deal with.

In the end, though, I remain intrigued by these good but fractious people. The book starts and ends with articles excerpted from the Kestrel Cove Chronicler. Back on their home turf, they seem less stressed. I hope “Sweating Through” is not the last in the series.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon; he is writing a history of Maine’s settlement and the Public Lots. He can be contacted at [email protected].

 


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