Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Beach reading, Part II

Kitchen Boy, by Sanford Phippen (Blackberry Press, 1996)

The Maine Myth gets served up in a variety of packages. Magazines, like Down East and Yankee, catering to a clientele that’s bent on buying up the rest of Maine’s coastline, the more palatial the better, imbibes this mythology in heaping portions.

To others, Maine represents a place of escape. A place where every open field and undeveloped acre hasn’t been paved over (yet), or turned into a retail complex—although developers are doing their damndest to make this a reality.

As a state, Maine has no shortage of writers and literary figures. From the mega-successful genre specialists, like Stephen King (a true native) and Tess Gerritsen (who comes from “away”), to writers like Linda Greenlaw, who has been able to mine the Maine native experience, coming up with her own pot of literary gold.

Sandy Phippen represents another kind of Maine writer, along with Carolyn Chute, Cathie Pelletier and even the late Ruth Moore, who write (wrote) about a Maine that most from away know little about, or if they have some sense of it, would rather pretend it doesn’t exist.

Hailing from the coastal hamlet of Hancock, Phippen has spent the past 40 years carving out his own unique take on his home state, writing about the Maine that makes tourism directors and marketing firms cringe. It’s not that Phippen writes about things that aren’t true, or even common, north of Portland and east and west of I-95. It’s just that for those that know Maine from the inside of an air-conditioned BMW, or large SUV, or from stops at swank boutiques in Camden, L.L. Bean in Freeport, or the outlets in Kittery, Phippen’s characters and sense of place will be unfamiliar.

I’m sorry to say that I had never read Kitchen Boy, his fictional account of growing up poor, in downeast Maine, working at The Manor, on Mount Desert Island, from 1959, through 1964. Obviously based on personal experiences from his life, Kitchen Boy rings autobiographical and is very much based in the cultural milieu of a very different Maine, some 40 years ago.

Kitchen Boy is the story of Andy (An-day) Harrison, who works for two eccentric, but interesting women, who own a tourist establishment that caters to mostly wealthy visitors, who come from Maine from all over, to experience the unique qualities that Maine offered at the time.

Phippen obviously has fun poking fun at the eccentricities, cheapness and condescending manners of many a guest that he had to tote bags for, serve drinks to, or peel potatoes that became their sustenance during their stay. While some of the guests were generous with their tips and rose above being a rich, boorish snob, most came across like what anyone with experience catering to tourists from south of here, would expect.

While Phippen’s book, released by Maine-based publisher, Gary Lawless and his imprint, Blackberry Press, has purportedly sold very well, I’m amazed how few Mainers I talk to know about Phippen as a writer. Sadly, recent events like the Maine Festival of the Book and other literary events, seem to be gravitating more to authors who have adopted Maine, because they can now afford to buy pricey real estate, rather than local treasures like Phippen and others.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kitchen Boy, as it helped me to better understand my home state and also prepared me for my upcoming vacation, where we’ll be renting a place for a week in Mr. Phippen’s backyard. I even hope to have the opportunity to have him over for supper and chat at length about writing, Maine’s culture and the differences between the “Real” Maine and the version served up by the Maine Tourism Bureau.

My recommendation for those of you prefer a more rustic and less commercialized version of Maine, is to run out, preferably to a local independent bookstore, like Gary Lawless’ store in Brunswick, Gulf of Maine Books and score a copy of Phippen’s book, along with The Messiah in the Memorial Gym and Other Writings 1973-1998 and maybe a copy of one of Ruth Moore’s books. You’ll enjoy being transported back to a Maine that is more authentic and considerably grittier than you might expect.

For an interesting read about "The Maine That Never Was" and the development of myths about the state, there is this interesting online article, which cites Phippen and other writers of his orientation.