Fiction: Two Swamps for the Money
Doug Nufer, The Mudflat Man, The River Boys (Seattle: Soul Theft Records, 2006)
In the 1950s Ace paperbacks introduced a new form for detective stories and science fiction: two novels, back to back and reverse. On one side would be, say, Prong Monsters of Mars. Turn the book directly over and you’d find, upside down, Robots Invade Paradise. As author Doug Nufer explained to me, the reasons Ace adopted this innovative packaging were mercenary. “Ace’s reason for using the format was economic. It was a gimmick (two for the price of one!) where they got to charge 35¢ for a book when the going rate was 25¢ Typically, they would choose a less well known writer to be on the b-side of a book where a more established writer would be featured on the a-side. Then, once someone was introduced, he might get to be the more featured writer.”
Now this author has come out with his own double novel, a Nufer twofer, titled both The Mudflat Man and The River Boys. It seems to me that his goal in this book is to retroactively redeem the form by providing compelling aesthetic reasons why two novels should share one spine.
Each novel is set in a ramshackle, fraying Jersey Shore community (1960s – 1980s) cut by a shallow stream. The area is beset by parallel disruptions: in one book, individual, in the other, collective, turning the river into carnivalesque chaos.
The individual version, Mudflat, tells of a parent’s worst nightmare. A 30-year-old son, Tommy Layton, won’t get a job and lounges around the house all day, eating peanut butter—grabbing a gob from the jar in his fist when he can’t find bread. When his exasperated parents lock him out, he moves into the river, setting up camp on a mudflat, living off suburban leavings he finds submerged in the tide. Tommy finds a foundling to raise, a boy who will learn how to float, swim, and wade, but not walk.
Where this book concentrates on the waterlogged rebel, River Boys looks at the shore community whose sons, once they come of age, decamp and join a band of river wastrels who wreak minor mayhem on recreational boats.
As has been suggested, the two novels complement, interlace and play off each other, although their tones are different. Mudflat reads like an over-the-top version of the tale in which a sensitive youth refuses to adapt to the workaday world. Once Nufer establishes his absurd premise—that one could raise a healthy kid in a garbage dump—he piles on the complications. Here, for instance, is the problem Tommy has in reading storybooks to his adopted son Briggs:
Nothing in them was anything like all he [the son] knew. The most basic things, like … houses and yards, mothers and brothers, were strange to him. To explain them, Tommy might say a car was a boat that went on land.
Although livened up by the antics of the ranch house dwellers whose barbecues on the bluff allow them to overlook and bet on the recurring clashes between the river boys and the harbor patrol, the tone of River Boys can be brooding and forbidding. In fact, Nufer works his magic by making the adolescents’ menace transcend the mundanity of their actual depredations. When Noreen, a potential seducée, visits their hidden base camp— in a swamp, not a mudflat—the placidity of their kegging and frugging does not take away the sense of murky, unspeakable plots just under the surface.
To sum up, both novels rotate on the same pivot—locale and generalized conflict between the housed and the afloat—so once a reader reaches the second novel, having started in either direction and finished with the first, the experience is enhanced by a flood of dazzling interchanges of tone and character moving around the same hub. Maybe I should put it more aphoristically: Nufer proves you can step into the same river twice.