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Salt Water

About The Book

In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father drowned....So begins this luminous story of a young man's passage through the dark turns of adult passion. A contemporary retelling of Turgenev's classic tale "First Love," Salt Water is set against a summer landscape of water, sand, and sky, and relates in seductive detail the momentous events that changed a family forever.
On an isolated island off the Atlantic coast, fifteen-year-old Michael and his parents begin their customary lazy vacation. When two exquisite flirts shatter the calm, Michael experiences the provocative mysteries and the consequences of various kinds of love -- romantic and sensual, paternal and filial.
William Faulkner Award-winning author Charles Simmons explores the very heart of the human need to be wanted, the intricacies of the father-son bond, and a boy's adolescence in all of its desires, confusion, and heartbreak.


Chapter One: The Sandbar
In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father drowned.
For one week in late June a sandbar formed half a mile out in the ocean. We couldn't see it, but we knew it was there because waves were breaking on it. Each day at low tide we expected it to show through. A bar had never formed that far out, and we wondered if it would stick. If it did, the water near shore would be protected and calmer, and we could move our boat, the Angela, in front of the house instead of keeping it in Johns Bay, on the other side of Bone Point. The swimming of course would change, it would be like bay swimming, and the surf casting would be ruined.
Father and I used to fish off the shore for king, weak, blues, and bass. The bass gave the best fight and were the best eating. We pulled in a lot of sand sharks too, small, useless things we threw back. Sometimes we went for real sharks, with a big hook, too heavy to cast. We'd fix on a mackerel steak, and I'd swim out with the hook and drop it to the bottom. I did this even when I was small, except then I'd float out on my inner tube, drop the hook, and Father would pull me in with a rope. Mother didn't like this, even though we did it only when the water was calm. Once we got a hundred-pound hammerhead shark, the strangest fish I ever saw. It had a head like a sledgehammer, with eyes on the ends. People said it was a man-eater, but Father said it wasn't.
We caught stingrays too. If Father hooked one and I was up in the house, he'd shout and I'd run down with the gaff. Stingrays are broad, flat fish. When you get them near shore, in the shallow water, they can suck onto the bottom and you can't pull them in. You have to go out in high boots and work the gaff through them so that water gets in and breaks the suction. We caught rays five feet across. They have spiky tails that flail around and can give you a whack. Before you can push the gaff through the body you have to step on the tail and cut it off. They eat stingrays in some places, but we didn't.
I never went out with the gaff. Father wouldn't let me. He went out and I held the rod. Once, after Father had cut off the tail and worked the gaff through the body, the ray took off, gaff and all, and pulled me over. The reel was locked. I held onto the rod and was carried out to where Father was. He grabbed the rod from me, and by the time we got the ray in it was mostly dead. We cut it loose, and it floated out.
"Suppose I weren't here," Father said, "how long would you have held on, forever?"
"Yes," I said, and he squeezed my shoulder. I was seven that summer.
Bone Point was a special place. During World War I the government took it over for military purposes and again during World War II. After that it became a permanent federal reserve. In 1946 there were only a few houses. The agreement with the government was if you already had a house you could keep it for forty-five years, until 1991, but no new houses could be built. Mother and Father took over our house in 1948, the year I was born and the year Mother's father died. He had built the house in the early thirties, and Mother had spent her childhood summers there too.
Like me she was an only child. She claimed the house had been too big for them, just as she thought it was too big for us. Mother was a complainer. The house wasn't too big. I liked all that room and light. The first floor was full of windows and glass doors, and the porch went around the four sides. Her father had liked the light too, Mother said. She often said I reminded her of him, which pleased me because she had been so fond of him, but I felt I was more like Father. There weren't many things Father said or thought I didn't agree with.
The furniture was all from Grandfather's time, and everything was large. For instance, there was a wicker couch in the living room that Father could lie on one end of, reading, with me at the other end, and we'd only overlap from the knees down. My bedroom was big enough for my doublesize bed with plenty of space left over. Blackheart, my dog, always slept with me, and we never got in one another's way. Every September we'd have to adjust when we moved back to town, where my bed was ordinary size.
Although after a week we couldn't actually see the bar, its presence got plainer every day. Complete waves were breaking on it.
"Want to swim out?" Father said.
It was as if he had read my mind.
"The tide is out," he said. "We can rest on the bar when we get there. On the way back the tide will be coming in and carry us along. What do you say?"
We were both good swimmers. Father used the crawl for general purposes. I did the backstroke, which is slower but not so tiring, and I liked looking up at the sky when I swam. Is there anything better than your body in the water and your mind in the sky? Whenever we swam together, because he was faster, Father would pull ahead, flip over, dive, stay down, come up, and fool around till I caught up. He was a regular porpoise.
I didn't think he should be doing it this time. We were heading half a mile straight out to sea, and he was using up his energy. Then two hundred yards out I knew we had miscalculated. We were moving too fast. It wasn't ebb tide, as Father had thought. The tide was still going out and speeding us to the bar. Every day the tide is an hour later. Today we had started out at noon, and I remembered that the previous day low tide had been at noon. Now low tide wouldn't be for an hour. I told Father.
"It's okay. We can wait on the bar before we swim back."
He didn't seem worried, but he didn't fool around anymore either.
When we reached the bar we found the water was deeper than we had expected. Father could stand with his mouth above water, but I couldn't. He tried holding my hand so the tide wouldn't take me farther out, but this pulled him off his feet. I had to swim just to hold my place.
"We can't rest," he said. "We'll have to go back. You mustn't panic. Do you understand?"
"I won't."
"Do you want me to help you?"
"I'll panic if you have to help me."
It was hard getting in. What kept us going was knowing that the tide against us was weakening. The question was, would the tide wear out before we did?
On the beach, figures stood watching us. As we got closer to shore and I knew we would make it I flipped over on my stomach and waved to Mother. I got a mouthful of water. Blackheart was there, along with the two people who were renting the guesthouse and their dog. It took us twenty-five minutes to get in, where it had only taken ten to get out.
Father and I lay exhausted on the beach for a long time. The two dogs sniffed us to see if we were alive. Mother held my hand. She was furious with Father. The two renters, who had just moved into the guesthouse, stayed with us. Mrs. Mertz was Mother's age. Her daughter, Zina, even upside down, was beautiful. Her eyes and hair were brown, her skin was a lighter brown, and her lips were purple. They seemed to be carved. She kept hugging and stroking her dog, as if it had been in danger instead of us. Then she touched my cheek, out of curiosity, I thought. I fell in love with Zina upside down.
After dinner that evening, Father motioned me to follow him outside. We walked to the water's edge, not saying much.
He wanted to look at the water, I thought, or get away from Mother, who wasn't speaking to him. The day had been bright and clear. Now the air was thick and damp, and a chill wind came off the ocean, turning it choppy.
"I thought for a moment out there you were going to leave me," I said.
"I wouldn't do that. Why did you think that?"
"It was just a thought."
"Would you have left me?" Father said.
"No, sir."
"Well, that's good," he said and put his arm around my shoulder. Whenever he did that I felt he loved me.
We walked back to the house. Mother was building a fire.
"Return to the scene of the crime?" she said. She was getting over it. We played Monopoly before going to bed. The wind shifted, and a nor'easter came up during the night. It lasted three days, and afterward the sandbar was gone.

Copyright © 1998 by Charles Simmons

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
1. Which is the more important relationship for Michael, the one with Zina or the one with his father?
2. Would the people in the story have acted differently today from the way they did in 1963?
3. Do you think Zina is permanently changed by the events in the summer of 1963?
4. Are any of the characters bad? Is there a villain in Salt Water?
5. At the end of the story Michael, now older than his father was when he drowned, says he still feels like a child. Why should this be so?
6. If the characters were real people, which would you like and which would you dislike?
7. If you were Michael, would you have acted differently?
8. Do you think Michael really wanted to kill his father?
9. Can you think of a better title for the book?
10. Would the story have been better if it had been told by the author instead of by Michael?
11. What do you think happens to Michael after the summer of 1963?
Q: You use an epigraph from Turgenev's First Love to signal the reader that Salt Water will resemble the earlier narrative. Why did you follow another writer's plot rather than invent a new one?
A: A number of reasons. But first let me say that Turgenev pointed out that First Love was almost literally autobiographical, so in a sense I took my story from life.
My four previous novels -- three comedies, and one rather serious book -- were all to some degree autobiographical. I had gradually become sick of myself as a subject. Needless to say, I wouldn't have thought of First Love if I hadn't admired it and all of Turgenev's work immensely. I meant Salt Water to be an homage as well as an exercise. The surprise to me was that in complicated ways Salt Water turned out to be autobiographical too. There's no escaping one's self, I suppose. At least not for me.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
A: The invention. I can invent fantastic episodes by the dozen, but to invent everyday occurrences that are not taken from my experience, are not literary clichés, and yet are exactly right for the story I find very difficult. I have to try out ten to get one good one. A master of this among living writers is Anne Tyler; the grandmaster is Chekhov.
There is another aspect of a book like this which is not noticeable when done right but which takes a lot of attention: that is, writing a story narrated by a fifty-year-old man which yet creates the sensibility of a 15-year-old boy. The writer must watch not only his vocabulary but also his psychological perceptions; as the story progresses, the narrator's innocence must be replaced, slowly, by increasingly mature insights. Not easy. A few false steps and the reader loses confidence in you.
Q: Turgenev set First Love in the country, you set your story at the shore. Why?
A: I know the beach and ocean better. I spent every summer of my childhood there, from the day after school closed to the day before it opened. A novelist is supposed to be able to wing it, and I could have used the country, maybe. But the feelings connected with walking on sand, sailing a boat, getting a mouthful of water? Maybe not. Anyway, this book allowed me to pay homage to the shore as well as to Turgenev. I guess it's obvious, but I used marine material every chance I got -- the minister's sermon, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," the Emily Dickinson poem, the New Testament quotation, even the father's birthplace, Neptune, N.J. This last, by the way, I chose because it is also the birthplace of Jack Nicholson, whose younger self I pictured when ever the father was onstage. Let me add that although this is a pretty serious book, it is full of private jokes -- putting them in not only amuses me but helps me maintain an interest in the story. Need it be said that the writer's worst danger is losing interest and nonetheless pushing forward. The most desperate strategy for a writer is setting himself the task of producing a certain number of words every day. Mailer maintains that a professional writer is one who can write even on bad days -- his last ten or so books show it.
Q: What do think in general of the reviews your books have gotten?
A: One might think that a writer is always gratified by a positive review and upset by a negative one. Not this writer. I've gotten some really dumb raves and some very intelligent put downs. The dumb raves embarrass me, the intelligent put downs interest me. The fact is that book reviews, next to love letters, are the easiest form of written composition. In writers' heaven a severe test would have to be passed before one was allowed to review books. When it comes to reviews in the here and now, publishers are interested in praise, the public in correct judgment, and the reviewers in looking good. That last would be changed.

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (July 1, 1999)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671035679

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review A small masterpiece. Simmons has found the perfect, delicate, elegiac voice.

The Wall Street Journal A simple and spellbinding novel...grimly enchanting....A powerful, 20th-century tragedy of an American family.

Booklist A riveting story of youthful innocence consumed by betrayal. Remarkably enthralling and agonizingly revealing....Simmons...maneuvers unfalteringly between each of his characters....The book's opening line leads like a wick into a powder keg of unexpected consequences. Simply spellbinding.

The Wall Street Journal The mastery of the telling...keeps one continually off balance until the maelstrom of a conclusion.

Kirkus Reviews A little saga of adolescence...a perfectly-cut gem of its kind.

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