A Novel

By Kenneth J. Harvey

St. Martin's. 471 pp. $24.95

Weird stuff is happening up in Bareneed, Newfoundland. Bizarre sea creatures float up on the tide -- albino sharks, strange fish -- and that's before centuries-old, perfectly preserved human corpses begin to surface, and spirits hover above them. Ghosts and mermaids are sighted. There's also a strange respiratory malady bedeviling the townspeople. It's not exactly difficulty in breathing -- more like just forgetting to do it. Some appear immune, such as Tommy Quilty, who sees people's auras and draws pictures of the future, and the ancient Miss Laracy, who could see fairies until they started leaving. That was back in 1952. Apparently, they found it impossible to cope with the demands of modern life. And they weren't the only ones.

When a novel like this one -- a serious, "literary" novel, rather than one with elves and sorcerers on the cover -- introduces fantastic elements into the plot, readers can either accept the weirdness as inexplicable or hunt for deeper meanings. Simply accepting the weirdness isn't very satisfying, but pinning an allegorical tag on something carries its own risks: "That mermaid is, like, society's lost innocence, man!" Such responses reduce the storyteller's art to a simplistic A=B exercise. But since forgetting how to breathe is a dire thing -- a lot like forgetting how to live -- it's only natural to want to understand why it's happening, especially when it afflicts a whole town.

The book offers plenty of clues. One summer visitor wonders: "Why wasn't he home with his preferred distractions that prevented him from staring too deep inside himself? His computer, his television, his twenty-four hour mini-marts." Miss Laracy, the colorful local crone, muses that, "Now she was reduced to buying her bread from the supermarket. It wasn't nearly as dense as the buns she used to make, it . . . was lighter as though made of one-part sawdust, but it would have to do." As for why the spirits started disappearing back in '52, she explains: " 'Twas da year da television came." Elsewhere she rails, "Ye'll kill us all widt yer high-tech gizmos," the "gizmos" in question being snowmobiles, chainsaws and cars. Meanwhile, the Murrays, a traditional family of boat builders and storytellers who "had never bothered acquiring an electric range, willfully rejecting all things modern," weather the difficulties pretty well. Get the pattern? There's much more along this line, and it gets kind of obvious after a while.

The story spans six days and nights, a clear timeline that gives us a much-appreciated structure to counterbalance a profusion of baffling incidents and characters coping with them. These characters pass the narrative thread back and forth: There's Joseph, vacationing with his 8-year-old daughter; his estranged wife, Kim; his uncle, a crusty fisherman; a spooky, bereaved neighbor; a doctor who strives to comprehend the nature of this strange plague; a busybody seer; a stolid police sergeant and many others. This multiplicity of views works well: Characters are individuated enough to avoid confusion, while the shifting viewpoint allows us a large scope on the unfolding tragedy. The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is just what its title suggests: the story of a town, a community bound by shared history and circumstances, going through tough times. (The word "community" appears constantly.) The tale is far larger than any single character could contain.

Kenneth J. Harvey's language is solid and unspectacular -- a wise choice, given the oddness of these events. Some sentences crackle with precision: "The radio played music that was so sugary it stuck to Joseph's teeth," or "The water's biting chill drew his testicles into his body as if sucked up by a vacuum." But ultimately, the book's success or failure rests upon two criteria: the ability to create a believable atmosphere of uncanny incident and the concurrent ability to convince the reader that this incident possesses significance. The novel succeeds at the first, falters at the second. We're effectively transported into a region of otherworldly strangeness and unpredictability, but the denouement is unconvincing. Electric lights, cell phones, Chevrolets and "I Love Lucy" may be no great cause for joy. But here they just seem like easy targets. It's tough to believe that we'd all breathe more easily with gas lanterns and horse-drawn carts. *

David Maine is the author of "The Preservationist" and "Fallen."