MAY 3, 2019
THE SCUZZY STRETCH of the Gulf Coast between Bradenton, Florida, and its sister to the south, Sarasota, is a place where people used to go to die. The relics of that past abound in copious shuffleboard courts, grids of dingy trailer parks, and various restaurants offering the Early Bird Special to a breed of retiree that’s scarcer there now than in the 1990s. Back then, frail bodies fleeing blue-state winters (and income taxes) populated Manatee and Sarasota counties so densely that my father likened leaving the house to stumbling onto the set of a zombie movie. Today, senior citizens no longer seem legion in that part of Florida, but still: to those who grew up there, like me, it remains a place where people go to finish the lives they started. Beginning a new life entirely, however, is best done elsewhere.
If only for that reason, this section of the Sunshine State makes an unusual setting for Belle Boggs’s new novel, The Gulf, a book about second chances, starting over, and two well-known strategies for doing both. One is being “Born Again” by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior and washing away the sins of the past. The other is to turn your despairs into dollars and publish a memoir or biographical novel. Being Born Again or writing an autobiography can both make a haphazard life look intentional. In The Gulf, they’re both also scams.
The novel begins sometime in 2011 with Marianne Stuart, who is a portrait of a scammer’s perfect target. A “connoisseur of the pointlessly difficult” and a Brooklyn-based poet, several years post-MFA, Marianne has not become the literary luminary she hoped to be. “Yes, she’d been the recipient of various grants, had published a chapbook, and was working on a full-length manuscript of poems, but her career had not exactly taken off.” Instead, she is 32, soon-to-be-dispossessed of her Greenpoint apartment by a gentrifying property manager, and for the most part, entirely alone.
Her relationship with her surviving family — her father and her younger sister — is strained. And her former fiancé, Eric, who gave her the only real chance she had for a Happily Ever After, is in Dubai working on a book, as well as another, secret project that he hopes will change both of their lives. A wealthy, elderly aunt has left Eric and his brother the deed to a Sarasota-area seaside motel, along with instructions for its very specific rebirth. Perhaps to settle a score with the divine at the end of her life, the aunt would like the motel to be reopened as a school for Christian writers. Or, to be more specific: “a low‐residency master of fine arts program for evangelical Christians,” which sounds like a joke because, in fact, it was.
Years ago, Marianne had ironically mentioned the idea to Eric, envisioning a lucrative scam that would fleece faithful right-wingers and humor the liberal, literary world. Now, Eric wants to pay Marianne a salary to live out this fantasy in earnest: run the school, screen the applicants, and select the instructors. With no other prospects, Marianne agrees, aware at some level that Eric’s program is a get-rich-quick scheme, but she is too adrift to care.
Plus, she needs time, money, and a room of her own to write her unfinished manuscript about “all the people and movements and decisions that made Marianne’s blood pressure rise […] but also an examination of the incomprehensibility of those people’s minds and the fear it created, the bears gnawing away inside your mind.” And where better to write about such people than in the midst of their monetized desperation? A few weeks after Eric’s offer, Marianne, a resolute atheist, arrives in Florida at the former motel that will henceforth be the “Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch.”
Already, it’s received a surprising number of applications from surprisingly intriguing students. They all want to be writers, of course; but more importantly, all of them want to be reborn. Davonte Gold, an R&B singer who found the Lord after he lost his six-pack and his celebrity and wants to restore both by writing a blockbuster roman à clef. Janine Gray, a despondent evangelical and highly intelligent home economics teacher from the Florida Panhandle, wants to write poetry that will enlighten the ungodly and enshrine the memory of Terri Schiavo. Marianne herself has designs on her own professional and romantic resurrections, both of which she expects as much as Janine expects the rapture.
Foils for one another, the two women separately ponder the “green flash” that mythically stretches across the horizon immediately after the sunset. It may or may not be a real phenomenon, but it’s certainly a strong allusion to Gatsby’s green light and the possibility — and possible futility — of becoming the person one hungers to become. Marianne may be an atheist, and Janine and her peers may be Christians, but they all nevertheless worship the same, distinctly American gods: the prospect of reinvention, and entitlement to it.
Boggs is as inspired by our faith in reinvention as she is intrigued by the hubris that it permits, that tempts us by asking: Why not burn ourselves up if we can always be born again, or at least write a book about it? Simultaneously mocking and admiring the popular sentiment that “everyone has a book in them,” Boggs describes the jilted Eric’s bitterness about his underwhelming debut novel and the bookstore clerks who sold it to him while saying things like:
“I gotta write a book one of these days” or, head‐shakingly, “Man, if I ever write my book…” as if whatever book the clerk might write would obliterate every other existing book, as if Eric’s book — the handsome, remaindered Copper Creek — was actively interfering with the clerk’s book writing. If only the clerk didn’t have to sit around putting sale stickers on Copper Creek all day, he or she might actually get some writing done.
Why strive to become something else when you can quite easily convince the world that you are already what you were destined to be? In response to this question, The Gulf asks a few more: Is “starting fresh” ever not a scam? Can we indefinitely shatter and reconstitute ourselves into something other than what we already are? And if we can, should we? The answer seems to be yes: after all, all the world’s a scam, and all the people are scammers — so long as no one says so out loud.
It’s a social contract that, at first, no one in the novel breaks. A New York creative writing MFA program scams Marianne and Eric. Marianne scams her students. Marianne is in turn scammed by Eric, who colludes with his brother to give a sinister and wealthy right-wing organization a seat at the table of the Genesis Ranch. Marianne, a vehemently pro-choice progressive whose politics feel more performed than passionately felt, finds out. She does not stay silent after she digs a little deeper.
She discovers that the organization, “God’s World God’s Word,” is an evangelical Christian proprietor of unaccredited for-profit trade schools, a front for anti-choice lobbyists, and a savvy marketer to the evangelical demographic. For reasons that feel a little capricious, Marianne then takes disastrous steps that bring an early end to her fresh start in Sarasota, sending her back to where she began. “Starting over,” Boggs suggests, is harder than it looks; to be reborn, it is not enough just to die and wait. No workshop, wedding, or savior will bring you back to life if you don’t know why you should continue to live.
It’s a brilliant concept that skewers parts of the Writers Workshop Industrial Complex, certain strains of American Christianity, and the myth of meritocracy. But Boggs only partially executes it, largely because of the unwieldy structure of the book, which may have been more effective as a set of interconnected short stories. Several different characters’ interior worlds slide across these pages, competing for the reader’s affection and allegiance, introducing story lines that ultimately feel cheaply concluded and lessons that don’t justify the trauma that paid for them.
Consider this insight Marianne receives from her father near the very end of the book: “He was right — it was as if she’d lost her path. She needed to go back to the place she’d been before she got lost.” It is a swift, shallow solution to the sprawling problems the book introduces, and just one example of how its interesting premise peters out into puffs of clichés. By the final chapters, The Gulf feels perfunctory, reading like hastily fleshed-out scripts for a miniseries about atheists and Christians living together in a Sarasota motel. Given that much of the book is dialogue — clever and readily transferable to a screen — I wonder if this was Boggs’s intention, one that iterated into this erratic but generally enjoyable and often funny novel. While it didn’t leave me Born Again, it killed me with laughter more than once.