Broken Trip
a compelling, brutal tale
of North Shore life

By Rae Franceour



Will Gloucester survive the slow, torturous decline of its fishing industry? On the eastern edge of Boston`s North Shore, this rugged, breathtakingly beautiful city is amassing a body of its own literature. Gloucester`s stories are notable for their depiction of a heroic culture that in recent decades battles despair. Peter Anastas, a Gloucester resident himself, has brilliantly chronicled the struggle in Broken Trip, an unusual book that straddles fiction and nonfiction. For lack of a better name, it is labeled a novel. And though there is some continuity provided between chapters, it is really a series of telling episodes in the life of Gloucester and some of her people. Love, loyalty and family; drugs and alcohol; fishing; incest and violence; poverty and its accompanying depravity are strong themes in this deceptively easy to read, but hard to digest book.

As the recently retired director of advocacy and housing at Action in Gloucester, Anastas is acutely attuned to the hardships this city endures. His book`s title, Broken Trip, is a localism for a fishing trip that doesn`t meet expectations due to weather, technical problems, or lack of fish. And though Anastas wears many hats on the North Shore - intellectual, frequently published author, father of the respected young author Benjamin Anastas, resident expert on poet Charles Olson - his 30 years working at Action indelibly inscribed themselves on his writer`s soul.

I marveled at the simplicity of Anastas' language - simple, declarative sentences that gently take you by the hand with words like "Everybody knew when the checks came" or "For nearly 10 years, Jimmy Skag had been living at the homeless shelter" and draw you deep, deep into the troubled lives of the book`s characters. Tony, a Gloucester caseworker, links stories, characters and hardships to one another. The one man with something tangible to offer that might sustain rather than corrode lives, Tony has the resources and the mindset to help. Characters show up at his office, sometimes simply in need, sometimes overtly hostile but desperate. He seems to have seen it all. And since he's one of them, a Gloucester native without pretense, he`s approachable. Anastas gives Tony his own trials, as well. As a result, the stable figure amid those in terrible crisis does not come off as paternalistic - a credit to Anastas, who must have struggled with this very problem himself.

There are a couple of recurring characters, but nothing close to what readers would expect in a traditional novel. In the second chapter, "The Snow Man," we are introduced to Rochelle, whose father was gunned down by the police and whose mother died of an overdose. Rochelle, a bright and talented young woman, is left with a baby sister to raise. Tony encourages her to apply for public assistance to help with expenses after she drops out of school. At the end of the book, Rochelle shows up again, years later, as an inspired psychiatric nurse for whom Tony serves as both peer and confidante.

At the Cut, Anastas` last published work - a memoir about growing up in Gloucester in the1940s - provided clues to what was to come with Broken Trip. Anastas is unflinching in his portrayals of incest, violence, sex, drug use and domestic chaos. Some of his writing about these matters is utterly poetic, especially when he describes Skag getting high on heroin or a mother reminiscing about her own early highs as she watches her drugged daughter act out on the street. Other scenes in Broken Trip are brutal. Be forewarned. And Anastas` way with dialogue is impressive. Not once does he aim for anything other than simplicity of language and brevity in description; yet, by the end of Broken Trip, we are completely absorbed - or is it ensnared? He has us by the heart.

When A Perfect Storm was first published, author Sebastian Junger worried about how those in Gloucester (a community he loved) would react. For the most part, people took the story about the hard-living, ill-fated group of fishermen in stride. Broken Trip is a much, much tougher book. In the chapter titled "Psych Unit," an outsider who chose to live in nearby Rockport tells Rochelle, "Maybe that`s why Gloucester frightens me so much. It`s all too real."

Anastas doesn't judge. His writing carefully, dispassionately reveals one aspect of the Gloucester he has come to know. As Tony takes his last walk home from his job, which was terminated due to cuts in funding, he considers the neighborhoods, the fishing industry`s decline, and the years he'd spent working for its people. "I guess it`s been a Broken Trip," he concludes, without regret.

Salem News, April 8, 2004
Broken Trip By Peter Anastas.
Glad Day Books, P.O. Box
699, Enfield, NH 03748, 2004. 250 pages. $16.

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