by Céline Keating
Review by JoeAnn Hart
The Stark Beauty of Last Things, a novel by Céline Keating
The driving force of this touching novel, The Stark Beauty of Last Things, is the question of what to do with the last unspoiled parcel of land in the coastal community of Montauk, Long Island. In Céline Keating’s deft hands, this parcel also stands as proxy for the bigger questions of what to do about the Earth. And like the Earth, the town is complicated. There’s a mysterious death, a bit of romance, lost souls, missing children, childhood secrets, grown-up secrets, and the requisite outsider to see it all with fresh eyes.
Outsiders, insiders, art, food, love, beach grass plugs, and seals. It’s all here. So is Otto, who owns the parcel with a few other residents, but before the partnership can decide its fate, he dies. Perhaps suspiciously so. His estranged daughter refuses to be involved with the land, so Otto had designated Clancy, an outsider, to fill that role. Again, perhaps suspiciously so. Clancy even gets Otto’s house as long as he lives in it for the majority of the year, and what a gorgeous year it is. The book’s sections are organized by the seasons, and every section opens with a stunning description of Montauk in that season. “Cloudless yellow sulphur butterflies flutter at the edge of the surf in a long, pale-gold ribbon.” The Stark Beauty of Last Things is a love letter to the town as it, and the world, is forced to face unwanted changes, both cultural and climate related. “The Montauketts had lived on the peninsula until driven out in the 1890s, now the land was crumbling into the ocean at 100 feet per century.”
In the face of change, what are the options for the land? Develop mansions? Preserve it? Create affordable housing? Clancy agonizes over what is best for the community, while seeking an answer to how Otto would have voted. He is pulled every which way by the partners, the neighbors, the citizens, and his conscious. There are multiple points of view, and all have conflicting ideas about what’s best for the land. Clancy gets educated on the complexity of towns, with its interplay of humans and nature. Towns “were like living creatures or ecosystems.” Another faltering ecosystem is the ocean, on which so many in town rely on for their livelihoods. “The ocean heating up was bad for the fish, for everything, but could people destroy something as powerful as an ocean? … Species are declining. Sizes, catches are smaller. You have to go farther out to find fish.”
Speaking of fish, the food! So much food! I feel like I ate my way through Montauk. Every time someone sat down to think or talk, they ate. Lasagna, hot chocolate, fried clams, lobster rolls, and casseroles. But then, when they finally put their forks down and step outside, nature becomes the star. “The air was fresh, with hints of diesel and salt and fish guts, and she breathed it in, over and over.” Nature is gorgeous but dangerous, with wildfires one season, and hurricanes the next, and a future that gets bleaker by the day. “The town’s natural resources employees know what is awry in the natural world: the drop off in song birds, the disappearance of right whales, the rising of the oceans.” Enjoy the natural beauty in this novel, while it lasts.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the prize-winning collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, from Black Lawrence Press. Other books include the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s.