When you cross the border from New Brunswick into Houlton, Maine you are greeted by a sign that says: “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” A grand statement perhaps but one difficult to find fault with after you get to know this diverse 23rd state. For the past several years my wife and I have vacationed in Maine from the mountains and lakes in the west to the sunny beaches in the east and we have always enjoyed our visits and the people we have met. So a place like the fictional town of Baxter, Maine in Jim Nichol’s Closer All the Time (2015 Islandport Press) is like a behind the scenes glimpse into the lives of the people inhabiting those small Maine towns we have visited.
Credible Characters, Satisfying Stories
There are thirteen chapters that make up this novel (each one is named after a Baxterite), so by the end of the book, you will be quite familiar with all the main characters and how they have inter-related over the years. These are people who have known each other since their schooldays, riding the school bus together, living on the same block, as well as from other various encounters over the years. The time period is early to mid-sixties, so such things as the Hippie era, Vietnam, drugs the space race, etc. hasn’t impacted mainstream American life yet. In fact, very little has impacted the town of Baxter and perhaps that is why I thought of that Maine state welcome sign.
While Baxter is not a backwoods type of place, full of down and outers, there are such characters in the stories contained in Closer All the Time. Actually, this novel is more like a collection of vignettes or thumbnail sketches of each person in the cast of characters, some told in the first person, others in the third person. It all makes for interesting reading, especially as the threads all intertwine to some extent creating a loose fabric of insightful, credible and heart-warming tales from start to finish. The dialogues may be sparse at times, but they are always very real and convincing. Take for instance this exchange between Russell (who is living at the moment in Alaska with Dora, a woman friend):
“Dora was as Irish as they come. I told her that once and she said, “Yeah-face like a potato.” The second time she said it, I carved a cute little face on a peeled potato and showed it to her.
“There you are”, I said and it felt pretty good when she threw her arms around my neck.
Mr. Nichols excels at keeping the narratives brief and relevant. His characters are not looking for the answers to life’s big questions, they are simply trying to deal with their own relationships (and demons) living their lives out as best they can. From bar rooms to the town jail to the Baxter airport, you’ll get to know the places and the everyday people who call Baxter home. In addition, the author has worked at many of the various jobs mentioned throughout the book: bartender, pilot, skycap, taxi driver, ramp and ticket agent for a commuter airline, travel agent and dispatcher for an air taxi service. It’s invaluable when an author can incorporate little details from his own life experiences into the narrative. For example, his bartending experience has taught him (likely the hard way) not to hang glasses over the ice tub, for if a glass falls and breaks into the ice, you have to throw out all the ice due to the bits of glass it now contains. His small plane flight experience comes through in several stories as well.
As a bonus, the book contains an interview with the author. One question asks:
“How has living in rural Maine impacted your writing, if it has?”
His response: “I like to write about people I meet or hear about, from their point of view (rather than that of an outside observer), which definitely has an impact on vocabulary and vernacular. These are the folks I am interested in, and their voices sing to me. I want to tell their stories the same way they’d tell them.”
This is what makes Closer All the Time so down to earth and satisfying. So if you come from a small town or enjoy reading about small town life (“The Way Life Should Be”) and the stories of people who inhabit them, then Closer All the Time will be a book you will definitely enjoy. It comes in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions.
Closer All The Time was the Winner of the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Fiction.