By Gail McCarthy
---- — In a literary alchemy, Gloucester author JoeAnn Hart has transformed the essence of the word “float” and its multiple meanings into an environmental novel featuring Maine characters as complex as those who reside in this city, the nation’s oldest seaport.
In a one-sentence synopsis of the book, she wrote: “Float” is the story of one man’s attempt to save his business (a fish dehydration plant) and his marriage (to a marriage counselor), while attempting to develop a jellyfish alternative to the plastics that are killing the oceans.
Although the novel is humorous in its satire, the plot revolves around the current world crisis concerning the toxic nature of plastic refuse floating in the Earth’s oceans. Hart’s second novel, ‘Float’ was just released by the Ashland Creek Press, whose mission is to publish books with a world view. Her book is described as a novel about the interplay of art, industry and plastics in the ocean.
“If the oceans get sick, we’ll get sick and the point of the book is that we don’t have to save the Earth and the oceans because they will continue no matter what. But they will become uninhabitable for us. The point is we need to save ‘us’ and we need to save our habitat that we are destroying,” said Hart.
During her research for the book she wrote over two years, she said she was astounded to learn how dangerous plastics pollution is to the human body because it is a toxic substance.
“I thought of it as a physical object that was unsightly, that was litter and dangerous to sea life. But I didn’t realize it broke down into toxic chemicals. It breaks down into smaller bits of itself but it never goes away, not even at a microscopic size. Our bodies will break down after we die, but not plastic. These chemicals are in our water. It’s a big cycle and we are all part of the chain of life and it will catch up with us.”
Hart’s work has won a number of awards, including the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction. “Float” was a finalist for the Dana Award in the Novel, and the first two chapters, slightly modified, won the Doug Fir Fiction Award in 2010 for a short story relating to environmental issues. In 2007, Hart published the novel “Addled” (Little, Brown), a social satire that intertwines animal rights with the politics of food.
The author, like everyone on Cape Ann, lives close to the water, and in clement weather, can be seen rowing a dory. But the seed for this story germinated after talking to a friend in crisis whose therapist urged her to learn how to “float” over her problems in life.
“By floating, she couldn’t be pulled down by her problems,” recalled Hart. “I fell in love with the word float and I started playing with that idea, and jotting down different meanings. It is a technical term in the financial world and you float in the water and float is also a physical object. As it stated evolving in my head, I thought about the plastic floating in the ocean and it is there forever.”
In the opening chapters, the reader soon learns that Duncan’s business is sinking, as is his marriage. Not only does the couple have problems, Duncan had to move back with his mother. His father had died in a sailing accident years before. In his attempt to save his business, he takes a loan from an unsavory character, and soon learns he is worth more dead than alive.
The notion of plastics pollution and its impact runs throughout the book. In the early part of the book Duncan goes to the beach and sees the words “God Help Us” written in the sand. Soon after he rescues a seagull whose neck is stuck in a plastic six-pack holder, an act which is caught on video as part of a conceptual art project. Duncan and his wife have infertility issues, which can be linked to the toxic nature of plastics pollution, and so evolve the connections.
“We have the technology and the imagination to do better for the environment. We can make plastic out of almost anything but we are making it out of oil. It’s a plastic world, but it doesn’t have to be made out of toxic substances. We have to work harder and stop adding to the problem,” said Hart.
Karen Ristuben, a local visual artist working on the topic of marine pollution, commended the author and the book.
“It’s just so funny, and she has such an amazing way of taking the issue of marine plastic pollution and weaving it into this crazy but believable story. It’s a really edgy story with really edgy characters,” she said. “You will love how she weaves in some of the real true content and substance of the problem itself that we have created. She is bringing it across as a writer. She is communicating it as a problem as well as communicating it with humor.”
One of Ristuben’s photographs was used for the cover of the book when her work came to the attention of the publisher. Ristuben traveled across the Pacific Ocean with a group of marine scientists to study the marine pollution. Ristuben wanted to document the extent of the pollution to show the human impact on the natural environment.
In a closing note, when Hart was asked which actors she would choose to play the book’s characters in a movie rendition, she replied: Colin Farrell for Duncan; Minnie Driver for his estranged wife, Cora; Meryl Streep for his crazy mom; Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Osbert, the mysterious financier; and Frances MacDormand for Josefa, the seagull rescue character; and Will Ferrell for Slocum, the slightly deranged chef.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or email@example.com.
If you go Who and what: Gloucester author JoeAnn Hart will read from her eco-novel "Float." When: Thursday, Feb. 28, at The Bookstore on Main Street in Gloucester at 7 p.m.; and on March 12 at 7 p.m. at Toad Hall Bookstore on Main Street in Rockport. How much: Free.