Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Bright and Distant Shores"

Dominic Smith holds an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly.

His awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Smith's second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was optioned for a film by Southpaw Entertainment.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his newly released third novel, Bright and Distant Shores, and reported the following:
Bright and Distant Shores takes place in the 1890s, amid Chicago’s early skyscrapers and in the far-flung islands of the South Pacific. An insurance magnate has just built the world’s tallest building and to commemorate it—and sell more insurance—he envisions an ethnographic exhibit at the apex of commercial America. He also wants to compete with Marshall Field, who in real life donated $1 million to set up the Field Museum after the World’s Fair of 1893. To stock his rooftop display, the insurance man commissions a collecting voyage into the Pacific. In addition to gathering thousands of tribal artifacts, the voyage is to bring back “several Melanesians related by blood.”

Caught up in this scheme are two men, each in a different hemisphere. Owen Graves is the son of a demolitionist and an itinerant trader from Chicago’s South Side. He accepts the post of head trader on the voyage to gain a foothold in the middle classes—the success of the expedition comes with a handsome trading bonus—but also to win the hand of the educated woman he loves.

Argus Niu—the character we follow on page 69—is a missionary houseboy working for a Presbyterian minister. After six years away from his family, he discovers that his employer has died unexpectedly and sets off to reconnect with his family. After learning “a butler’s English and how to recite psalms and read Kipling and Dickens” he finds himself caught between two worlds, between the tribal and the Christian worldview.

The novel traces the collision course between the collecting voyage and Argus as he tries to reclaim his family. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to suggest that Argus is among the Pacific islanders who come back to Chicago for the insurance tycoon’s crazed scheme.

Page 69 of Bright and Distant Shores:
And somewhere along the way he’d learned to covet things, despite the Reverend Mister’s homilies about simplicity and the emptied cup of man. In his portmanteau there were books and drawings, a watch that ran slow, shirts and ties, a spare pair of trousers and flannels, clean socks, a gun rag with money coiled inside, a gilt-edged Bible, a set of cutlery and a silver serviette ring. He remembered his boyhood on Poumeta and how the children played with bark, raffia, and reeds, keeping them only as long as the game itself, improvising dams and sailboats on the muddy river. They watched their fathers return from their epic trading voyages to the island of Tikalia, hundreds of miles to the east, armlets and dogteeth gathered in the bows of the outriggers. They rushed to the beach to cheer for the bounty. But for Argus it was playacting. He had never understood the thrill of the bracelets that connected them to the distant island. They were frequently tarnished and chipped. His father recited the provenance of each strand of shells, naming the hands through which it had passed. Meanwhile, the children kept twigs and leaves for half a day, never once amassed a bowery of fish spines or gold-flecked stones. They watched the women wash each other’s hair, bathe in mallow-scented pools, and argued in the shadows over who was the tallest, oldest, or fastest. They watched the adult affairs of the village with a dedicated lack of interest. The dull litanies to the dead, the stupid haggling over pigs and brides. They were allowed to stay out until dark and were beaten only if they damaged property. The water pots and limed jugs, the shell and tooth empire, so many things were hallowed and beyond reach back then. He leaned against the schooner bulkhead, wending his way home after six years, his new life revealed in the props he carried, in the leather suitcase that belonged to a dead priest.
Learn more about Bright and Distant Shores at Dominic Smith's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue