"Aransas," Stephen Harringan's first novel, is the work of a writer fluent in several genres. For several years, Harrigan, a poet and former editor of a poetry magazine, has been spinning out his elegant prose in the Texas Monthly, ensnaring subjects from cloistered nuns to dude ranches to this month's tribute to Big Bend, and he regularly serves as that magazine's book reviewer. He has learned the value of local detail and the knack of taking subjects about which the reader might not ordinarily care and making him do so, and his well-crafted novel reflects his journalism experience.
For a casual reader encountering "Aransas" on the shelf at a bookstore or library, the novel has a few strikes against it, in addition to being the first fiction of a relatively unknown writer. The title seems mysterious and at first glance unpronounceable to non-Texans. It is, in fact, an unmysterious place on the Texas Gulf coast near Corpus Christi and is pronounced uh-RAN-zus. But it seems fitting that the setting of a novel that is very much about place, about knowing where you come from, should give the book its title. The other problem is more difficult to surmount and calls for a willing suspension of disbelief: "Aransas" chronicles a young man's attachment to two porpoises he is hired to train -- indeed his passion for them the (jacket copy offers this quote: "'A part of my life fell away during those weeks,' he says, 'I swooned'").
Son of Flipper! Not another transcendental tale about the Oneness of Nature, with man's violation of the natural world symbolized by the captivity of the almost human, very intelligent porpoise! Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is but a good writer can make us read about almost anything if he has enough genuine feeling for his subject and characters. And, unlike too many first novelists, Harrigan has something to say and, for the most part, says it well.
The protagonist of the novel is a young man named Jeff Dowling who has spent the years since his parents' death wandering in the counterculture of New Mexico, earning a living at some rather odd jobs, including, most recently, playing Bigfoot in a grade C move (and here the symbolism seems a bit heavy-handed). He is summoned home to Port Aransas, Tex., by Dude Granger -- a kindly, Colonel Sanders type in a white suit and Panama hat -- to help with a trained porpoise act, Granger's latest venture in his lifelong unsuccessful attempt to turn Port Aransas into a resort town. Jeff, who is so disassociated from his present life that he calls the woman he lives with "the Seamstress," decides to go, in part out of obligation to Granger who had been a friend of his parents, in part out of curiosity and lack of anything better to do, and in part because of family history. The family legend was that Jeff's father had once been "saved by a school of porpoises when his plane went down in the ocean off New Guinea during World War II and Jeff sees the power of this myth as "an heirloom I had to go home to claim."
Predictably, Jeff falls in love with the porpoises and with Mary Katherine Severin, a graduate student in marine biology who is writing a thesis on porpoises and who deeply disapproves of holding the animals in captivity. When Granger's Porpoise Circus, in which, it turns out, he was not the majority stockholder, is about to be sold to a well-known animal trainer, Jeff and Mary Katherine make a decision to keep that from taking place. What happens I won't say, except that one of the novel's saving graces is that things don't turn out quite so predictably in the end.
"Aransas" held my interest. Harrigan's eye for locale and its effect is superb, particularly his descriptions of the muddy, littered coast and the tacky little town of Port Aransas, with its outdoor movie theater and inelegant seafood restaurant where the hostess greets the customers by saying, "Ahoy!" And Jeff's reactions are believable because they involve a slow unfolding, from skepticism to infatuation and its resistance to love that leads to acceptance of himself, his place, his heritage and to a reclaiming of emotion: "As she (Mary Katherine) sat on the floor opposite me I saw her as a porpoise might have, as an impulse felt deep in the body, at that place below the abdomen that a Taos guru once pointed out to me as the stable center of the body. I felt her there, and it seemed almost pointless to reach out and touch her, but I did anyway.