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The Beach As A Sandy Portal For Figuring Out What You Want

The Beach As A Sandy Portal For Figuring Out What You Want

When Henry and Effie first arrive at Cape May, New Jersey, they are almost immediately disappointed. It is September: the off-season, and the young newlyweds from Georgia find the beach town all but deserted. Both are virgins and, as we soon learn, practically strangers to themselves as well as to each other, stumbling over their bodies to have sex for the first time. Instead of offering a romantic escape from their provincial upbringing in Georgia of the late 1950s, Cape May leaves the couple feeling lonely, depressed, and uncertain — they do not seem to possess the language to express what they want, or how they want it, sexually or otherwise: “The days were long. There was little to do,” and so they decide to cut their honeymoon short and return home.

But this is only the beginning of Effie and Henry’s journey in Chip Cheek’s exquisitely-paced, erotically-charged debut novel, Cape May. The night before they decide to leave, they encounter the worldly and quasi-sophisticated Max and Clara at a swinging house party complete with proto-beatniks, artists, and the random communist or two. Clara knew Effie when they were younger, and the two were not friends, but that hardly seems to matter now — Clara seems delighted to see her “belle” again with her new husband in tow. She insists Effie and Henry join her and her lover, Max, and Max’s sister, the wry and mysterious Alma, on a boating excursion soon after. And what unfolds in this compact novel is a strange and delirious exploration of power and sexuality that reads, at times, like a fevered dream.

Cheek deftly creates tension by depicting scenes where the five main characters — Henry, Effie, Clara, Max, and Alma — are always speaking in innuendo and half-truths: while exploring abandoned houses, sunning on Clara’s boat, or playing a card game, the group reveals themselves to one another, and a strange intimacy develops. At any moment, it seems, a single glance, or word, can lead to something more exciting and dangerous. In the final fifty pages, these tensions are gloriously exploited to full effect, and the prose — always tight and spare — carries us along for the ride.

The deserted beach town transforms into an oasis of pleasure for all involved, but for Henry in particular, the novel’s central character. He begins an unwise and impulsive affair with Alma, while, in the periphery of this secret relationship, Effie is drawn closer and closer into the world of Clara and Max. Cheek’s rendering of Henry is both honest and, at times, scathing, exposing his ignorance and hypocrisy without ever verging into hyperbole: Henry is naïve, sheltered, driven by lusts he can barely understand. His innocence to the ways of the world is not treated as a virtue, but as another debilitating facet of his spiritual and emotional paralysis. After he sleeps with Alma for the first time, he returns back to the cottage where Effie, who has caught a cold, is fast asleep. He is stunned by his own actions. As he lays down beside his new wife, he “couldn’t believe he’d done what he’d done. And so he replayed it, moment by moment, as if in search of proof, until in spite of himself he was erect again.” Henry is also cruel and unforgiving toward Effie when he becomes privy to her own desires during a night of ill-fated group sex with Clara and Max: “What I did,” he incredulously tells her, “it didn’t mean anything, but you — that was something else. […] You made yourself his little whore.” The idea that Effie could be just as unprepared for married life, just as fickle, just as controlled by the wants of her body as he is, leaves Henry’s fragile ego wounded and flailing.

Though dark and, at times, quite brutal, Cape May, as a reading experience, is every bit a seduction in and of itself, and the novel, among its many delights, announces the arrival of a blistering new talent. Chip Cheek brilliantly explores the limits of marriage, of monogamy, and of a certain kind of staunch and superficial American masculinity that still persists today, more than half a century later.

The beach also features prominently in John Glynn’s heartfelt debut Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer, but unlike Cheek’s novel, Glynn’s personal story is far more earnest and hopeful, yet no less affecting. During one summer, Glynn purchases a share at a beach house in Montauk, where he spends his weekends with a group of other well-to-do twentysomethings (affectionally called the Hive), and here, amid the boozy all-night parties and lazy morning recoveries, he experiences a profound sense of belonging with his housemates: “I assumed those days were behind me,” Glynn writes, “[t]he sense of living as a group. But the Hive, by definition, was communal. We existed as one unit, for better or worse.” And in this new environment, he feels “swaddled and safe,” which, in turn, allows him to explore new, uncharted romantic possibilities: to his surprise, he finds himself attracted to another man, a fellow housemate named Matt. Until this summer, he has only dated women.

Glynn admits at the beginning of his memoir that the events of this summer occurred during a “flexion point,” a moment when his personal life was in something of an emotional tailspin. His beloved maternal grandmother, Kicki, just passed away, and he survived an automobile accident where the car was totaled, but he miraculously survived relatively uninjured. And despite being a successful editor, living in a swank apartment in Manhattan with a close-knit group of friends from college, Glynn has remained single, failing to connect with women. He is plagued by bouts of social anxiety and loneliness, which has haunted him since childhood. He grew up an only child, a part of a sprawling and loving family of aunts and uncles and cousins in Massachusetts, and “yet somehow,” he writes, “I felt dislocated. Different. I didn’t understand the loneliness. I just knew it was there. Like the moon gone dark.” In a lesser writer’s hands, these moments of vulnerability might read as self-indulgent, diffuse, but Glynn grounds them firmly within the scope of his own experience. The scenes between him and Matt are rendered with such open-heartedness, such tenderness, too, that we are not only exalted by their chemistry but, at the same time, worried for Glynn, for first love as ephemeral and as delicate as this rarely, if ever, ends happily.

Out East is a sheer pleasure to read — and one of the greatest pleasures comes from Glynn’s ability to become our guide to the Hive, introducing us to a colorful cast of millennials — D.Lo and Kirsten and Colby, to name a few. (We also get brief glimpses of his parents sprinkled throughout the book, and his mother, Thomasina, is someone I could have, frankly, spent the whole book with, suggesting she might have a memoir of her own to write one day.) At first we encounter his housemates in their gaudy excesses, their drunken exploits and dramas, but Glynn pushes his characterizations of them past these initial impressions and seeks to shed light on the real people underneath their gaudy veneers. Members of the Hive confide in Glynn, and he becomes a keeper of their stories — until, at last, he has his own story to share with them. As they all come together to support him in his coming out, we learn the romance that has most affected our narrator this summer was not with Matt at all, but with Montauk. A masterful storyteller, Glynn skillfully evokes this place and this summer on the page — we can’t help but feel the sand scratching against our feet, the thumping baseline at the Point, the furtive traces of someone’s hand against our back, leading us onto the dance floor for one more Britney Spears song. Parts of Glynn’s memoir are written with the same clarity and ebullience as E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” if said essay were also infused with equal parts vodka, millennial angst, and sexual longing.

See Also

Both books would make lovely companions for your own (hopefully much less intense) trip to the beach this summer. These stories, in fact, have many of the same qualities I often look for in the types of adult beverages I enjoy while beachside: they are well-crafted and nuanced in flavor, with just the right amount of kick.

Cape May
Macmillan Book Brag Selection!
Published April 30, 2019

Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer by John Glynn
Grand Central Publishing
Published May 14, 2019

View Comment (1)
  • Thank you for the review. The book Cape May reminds me of McEwan’s On the Chisel Beach. In some parts even too much… I am inspired to read your story collection and the novel, though.

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