Promontory Press, 2017
There is a keen balance to Blaine Beveridge’s novel A Bit of Candy in Hard Times. The story opens and closes with Emmett Dougal swimming for his life from the wreckage of his livelihood. First in the waters off the coast of Maine and then in Washington’s Puget Sound, each time Dougal is suffering the consequences of his actions as a bootlegger moving liquor across the US border with Canada. A Prohibition Era novel (1920s), A Bit of Candy in Hard Times is well researched historical fiction while also being a wonderful bit of modern local-color writing as Beveridge captures the Pacific Northwest in vibrant detail. Lovers of the television series Boardwalk Empire as well as those who enjoyed David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars will find Beveridge’s novel engaging and palpably unaffected.
Dougal crosses the country like a tramp looking to get himself back on track after a violent encounter on the Maine coast puts an end to his prospects there. We learn his isn’t much of a homecoming due to his history of political agitation in the area (that is, being part of the IWW, the socialist movement that won us all the minimum wage and work week we take for granted) which has created a deep schism between himself and his island sheriff brother. Dougal makes a life as fisherman alongside an aged captain and an ethnic outcast, an Indian named Angel.
This story runs parallel to that of Arlyn Dunne, an ex-Seattle police officer hired by kingpin Reynard Delacroix as a bodyguard/personal assistant. Dunne’s backstory is woeful but nothing less than what the era’s muckraking journalists revealed were the baseline for much of the country’s citizens:
“My father was a steam fitter for the city, who felt the need to nightly support a local saloon in our Brooklyn neighborhood. My mother was a laundress, which she took in, and also worked as a seamstress, happily doing alterations for a haberdasher because that meant she could get out of the house as often as possible. My father got drunk one day in 1911, beat my mother senseless, and then started in on me and my little brother with a broom handle. I was faster than my brother and escaped. He wasn’t so lucky. HI name was Timothy. He was six. My mother went to a hospital, and my father went to Ossining. I never saw either of them again. My father died from drinking Sterno, which had been smuggled into the prison. My mother was institutionalized, and I got word later on that she died there.”
In begrudgingly revealing his past to his employer after being hounded by him and his daughters, we see a man who represents the exact reason why Prohibition was enacted. The grand irony, of course, being he now works for a man who’s fortune is based on illegality. With both Dunne and Dougal’s family relation to family, we realize this historical context is one first and foremost of social welfare that’s deeply personal.
We see this also in Beveridge’s depiction of Dougal’s fishing captain Urquhart after suffering a stroke,
“He felt himself sliding into melancholia, starting to reassess his life: looking back through the kaleidoscope of embellished and half-forgotten memories, weighing blame, responsibility, failure and success. He still thought of himself as a thirty-year-old, an indestructible force of nature. Now, every time he looked into the mirror he saw a stranger. No color to the beard, not much on his head. There were hairs springing out of his ears, and wrinkles on top of wrinkles. Inside, he knew the thirty-year-old still existed, but the machine was beginning to break down.”
This is at once a modern lament of a man growing older but when set in a time when there was no Social Security, where men and women literally worked until their death, it takes on a deeply haunting air.
This is what is strongest about Beveridge’s novel, the story is deeply and intimately tied to not just its place but the era yet still manages to feel brazenly contemporary. Readers are given compelling characters who due to their circumstances have a moral flexibility mirroring the works of the great Realist writers of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
Beveridge’s website would seem to suggest that A Bit of Candy in Hard Times is the first of a planned Puget Sound trilogy to be followed by Playing Out the Hand and Down, Beat Down. The strength of this first installment will certainly leave readers eager to see more from Beveridge. With a confident voice, an excellent sense of pace, and the cinematic skill of weaving character stories together, Beveridge has not only presented readers with a solid debut but also has announced himself as promising literary talent.
Blaine Beveridge is an alumnus of The Writer s Program at UCLA and a former Program Administrator for Film and Television at UCLA Extension. He served four years as an executive board officer of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Blaine was also the Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army, Pacific, Leadership Academy (1972). He currently lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two, four-legged children Captain Bligh and Calliope.