Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, December 6, 2018

Thursday, December 6, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Cape May

Celadon Books: Cape May by Chip Creek

Celadon Books: Cape May by Chip Creek

Celadon Books: Cape May by Chip Creek

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Cape May

by Chip Cheek

It is late September 1957. Newlyweds Effie and Henry have traveled from their small Georgia town to Cape May, N.J., for their honeymoon, only to find themselves in a nearly deserted seaside resort. When compared with her nostalgic memories of summers at her uncle's Cape May home, the ghostly atmosphere is a disappointing reality for Effie, who "had not understood what 'off-season' meant."

Feeling unmoored and sexually uncertain with each other, the young couple--Effie is 18, Henry is 20--are on the verge of leaving early when they meet Clara, a vivacious Manhattan socialite who remembers Effie from their childhood summers. Several gin and tonics later, Effie and Henry have become enamored with Clara and her inner circle, one that includes her wealthy and gregarious lover, Max, and his beautiful but aloof half-sister, Alma.

Being away from everything and everyone they know in Georgia provides Effie and Henry with a false sense of invisibility and invincibility, the irresistible thrill of remaining hidden while testing boundaries, limits and each other's trust. As Effie and Henry's morals, inhibitions and innocence become untethered, they don't realize that their young marriage has approached a dangerous point of no return.

That precipice makes for an especially compelling and shocking story, one that debut novelist Chip Cheek tells with exceptional symbolism and foreshadowing. There is a film noir quality to the tense narrative that brings the reader immediately into the isolated setting and time period. The heightened sense of danger and foreboding is well supported by Cheek's decision to place Cape May in the fall of 1957. At a large dinner party Clara hosts, the conversations are about the threats from the Soviets. "Always there was something about the Soviets. Korea, outer space, the threat of nuclear war." Henry speculates that some of the guests may even be "covert Communists, of the sort that had supposedly infiltrated the upper echelons of American society." Rather, the real danger lurks within each character's soul. No one is the person we once believed and hoped they were. Everyone is flawed, and tragically so. Having been raised near Flannery O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., Cheek's strong Southern gothic influences are the real deal.  

In Cape May, the small details--the kind that reward and thrill careful readers because they signify greater meaning--are among Cheek's strengths. Before meeting Clara, Max and Alma, Henry is reading James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, "which his Uncle Carswell had given him as a wedding present. Carswell had read it when he was a young man, and it had been a good guide to him, he said. 'You're always going to be at work on yourself, son, and it's always going to be a struggle. But it's the struggle that'll make you a good man.' Henry liked the ideas; he had a vision of the kind of man he wanted to be--virtuous, humble, strong, and bold, full of good cheer but in healthy moderation--and he was eager to learn."

Duplicity and transformation of the self is at the heart of Cape May. Henry's struggle to be a good man is immediately tested on his honeymoon at a moment of betrayal coinciding with his and Effie's sexual awakenings. In Cape May, Cheek shows that every couple encounters such a moment of their own--whether physical, emotional or some combination of both--and it holds the power to change a relationship forever. --Melissa Firman

Celadon Books, $26.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781250297150, April 30, 2019

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Chip Cheek: Finding His Literary Way to Cape May

photo: Sharona Jacobs

Chip Cheek's stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Harvard Review, the Washington Square Review and other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop and the Vermont Studio Center. He earned a Masters in Fine Arts from Emerson College and currently lives in El Segundo, Calif., with his wife and baby daughter. His first published novel, Cape May (Celadon Books, April 2019), is an Indies Introduce title.

You've lived in Georgia, Boston and California. What is your connection to Cape May, N.J.?

While I was getting my MFA in Boston, I became friends with Lizzie Stark. Her family had a house in Cape May. Two or three times a year, usually in the fall or winter, a group of us would go there for our own little writing retreats. We huddled up in the house and took frigid walks by the beach. Because we often went there in the off-season, I came to associate the town as empty and atmospheric. It is very different in the summer, I know. All of it holds such a fond place in my memory.

Tell us more about the atmospheric mood in this novel. You were born near Milledgeville, Ga., home of Flannery O'Connor. There's a Flannery influence to this story, it seems.

Yes, she was one of my first loves as a writer. I found her late, after I graduated college. When I read A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I thought: oh my God, this woman is writing about my family! These are my people! The cadences, the dialogue, the way they talk and think--that's where I'm from so I devoured everything by her. There's an unmistakable influence, I'm sure.  

You were writing a different story when Cape May emerged.

I was. I had been trying to write a novel for years. I finished my MFA in 2007 and I was working on stories, but I decided that the novel was my true love. It was all I wanted to do, yet I never seriously tried it. The material I started with was dark, Depression-era stuff. My family has a railroad background--much like main character Henry's family in Cape May--and I have always been very interested in writing about that. But when I did, nothing came together. That novel turned into another one set in the Jim Crow era based on something that happened in my family years ago. It was a very dark version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought, now this is "the stuff." The real literary, intellectual stuff.

And how did that become Cape May?

I kept getting sidetracked by love stories. Even though I wrote so fluidly when I was writing about love and sex and desire, I kept dismissing it. After I got married, I was working on the Jim Crow novel and decided to marry off two characters, Effie and Henry. I thought, "Let's send these two people to Cape May and see what happens there!" Suddenly, I had this novel. It only happened because I listened to this internal desire to write about love instead of backtracking to my serious, dark novel. I wasn't sure if anyone would care about these normal people and their tender feelings, but I knew that I cared and I wanted to follow it. Love, sex and desire--that is "the stuff."

There is a lot of love, sex and desire in Cape May. How were those scenes for you to write?

Extraordinarily difficult! I have been drawn to the subject for years, probably because in my relatively normal middle-class life, the most urgent dramas had to do with sex and love. As a fiction writer, these subjects fascinate me because most people have experience with them but it is so complicated! There are so many forces at work. Like an iceberg, 99% of it is sub-textual. I love trying to capture the thrill of it, the awkwardness... but it is so, so hard to write. It is easy to embarrass yourself.

The intimacy between the characters is such an essential part of this story. Who was your favorite character to write?

Effie, because she is based on the tough Southern ladies I knew as a child. She's my mom, my sisters-in-law, my aunt. She is someone I know very well and hold with deep affection. And Clara, a Manhattan socialite that Effie and Henry meet, was an incredibly fun verbal force of nature. When Henry and Effie knocked on Clara's door, I had no idea who would answer. She was born straight from her own dialogue.

How long did it take you to write and revise the novel?

I wrote Cape May in two months but took another two years for revisions. That pace intensified in November 2016 when my wife and I learned we were expecting a baby. I raced to finish it. The book deal and the baby came within days of each other. We also moved across the country. Life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately, but I would not trade it for anything. I am doing exactly what I always dreamed of doing. --Melissa Firman

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