LEAVING PICO

By Frank X. Gaspar

University Press of New England. 211 pp. $24.95

By Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango."

Some poets have all the luck. Descendants of seafarers, they grew up in fishing families. They cut their teeth on the sheer poetry of gear, on words like boom and gaff, jig, fid, wind rose, rhumb line, astrolabe. They had salty raconteurs for grandfathers, flinty matriarchs for aunts, and sailors with eye patches for mentors. When such poets write their first novels, don't they enjoy a head start on their long reach across the open channels of fiction?

Frank X. Gaspar is an accomplished poet who grew up in a Portuguese fishing community in Provincetown, Mass. In the afterword to this novel (his first), he writes, "The rest of the country seemed to bustle through the early Cold War, but isolated at the end of our long cape, we lived in another century. The houses were filled with objects that are no longer made or no longer exist. . . . The most noble and successful profession was fishing in the waters of the North Atlantic. Our men bragged and swaggered but submitted to a grim sense of fate. Our women prayed and worked and held their homes together with a variety of strengths."

"Leaving Pico" is a quietly affectionate account of the lives of these men and women. Both a coming-of-age and an end-of-an-age novel, it penetrates this insular world, with its tensions between townspeople and summer people, "those people from away," and its rivalries between the Lisbons and the Picos. The Lisbons hail from the mainland of Portugal, the Picos from the Azores, both factions still cheerfully carrying on the age-old ancestral feud between mainlanders and islanders.

The story is told by Josie Carvalho, a young Pico boy "somewhere between first communion and confirmation." Josie lives with his mother in an extended family that includes his grandfather, his great aunt Theophila ("Hettie"), her Protestant Yankee husband and their two bachelor boarders. The household oozes religion. Hettie has apparitions. Josie muddles through faith and prayer. "I kept petitioning. It was like talking to heaven on a bad telephone line." But he is strong on the holy martyrs. When Father Santos visits (mostly to defuse some of the hysteria of Hettie's visions), Josie aces the cleric's quizzes. "Quick, Josie, Saint Jeremy!" "Beheaded!" "Aha, and Juliana?" "Beheaded!" "Just beheaded?" "Tortured and beheaded." "And Saint Victor?" "Basted in hot lead." "Wonderful, wonderful."

Balancing the sacred with his own talent for the profane is Josie's grandfather John Joseph. Grandfather is a drunk who poaches clams by moonlight, relieves himself in public on the deck of his boat during the Bishop's Blessing of the Fleet, and throttles the statue of Saint Anthony, patron of lost objects, when he can't find his good handline. Nonetheless, "John Joseph is a beautiful man," as one of his buddies insists. "Christ, Hettie, hey, we love the guy." Still a fine sailor, Grandfather leaves a wake behind him "as straight as a length of stretched cable." A great storyteller besides, he draws on "big vocabularies in both languages."

His crowning fiction, a seafaring yarn spun out over the summer to his enthralled grandson, concerns the voyage of an ancestor, Francisco Joao Matta de Jesus Carvalho, who may have beaten Christopher Columbus to his landfall in the New World by a year, only to be forgotten by history. Making up the story as he goes along, Grandfather weaves a drama of adventure, rapacity, skulduggery, mutiny and mayhem on the high seas. The time is the dawn of the Portuguese Seaborne Empire, when navigators seeking a sea route to the Indies hope to find a southern passage joining the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The characters include Columbus, Vasco da Gama (who realized Columbus's vision of sailing west to reach the East), and Carvalho the legendary ancestor himself (all three on the same ship at one point). But after this historic crossing of the Atlantic, what is the deal that assigns Africa to da Gama and the West to Carvalho? How does Carvalho end up setting down his last stone padroa in Provincetown instead of somewhere in the Orient? Where is proof of his career, the charts and the logs?

For most of the 63 pages devoted to this maritime mystery, I kept wishing I cared. I even dug up my two books on the history of Portuguese exploration for a speedy refresher. But the change of pace and tone brought on by the Carvalho saga was rather like splicing "Captain Blood" in with "The Old Man and the Sea." I longed for a return to the poetic present, for the smells of deck enamel, fresh brine and net tar, for a voice like that of the man fixing an electrical wire: "Here's the ticket, here's the bugger right here. Now don't touch that, hey, or you'll get the juice right through you."

Happily, the yarn of the ancient mariner gives way to a "Portagees" clambake in the end. Who cares whether the pope sold out to the Spaniards, I say, when there are quahogs, fish cakes and linguica sandwiches? Who cares whether Vasco da Gama was a scoundrel and a knave when characters like Johnny Squash and Squid Dutra are back for the clambake, along with that woman from away--the one who dances half-naked on fences, shouting "Eisenhower is the Antichrist!"?