Ship Sooner, by Mary Sullivan. HarperCollins. 274 pages. $23.95.
Ship Sooner, Mary Sullivan's second novel, proves her provocative debut was no fluke as good first novels can be. Rather, Ship Sooner delves deeper into the territory of familial tragedy Sullivan so deftly traversed in her Stay. On the surface Ship Sooner, particularly in its lyrical first section, seems merely a well-wrought coming-of-age tale with an edge of magical realism: Carson McCullers meets Alice Hoffman. But while Sullivan's novel merits some comparison to those writers' keen sense of the often disturbingly dark and alienated world of adolescence, Sullivan borrows neither her sharply drawn characters nor her tale tinged with allegory.
Sheila "Ship" Sooner turns 13 as the novel opens. She, her 15-year-old cheerleader sister, Helen, and her pretty, single mother, Teresa, live in tiny Herringtown on the north shore of Massachusetts. In this hamlet, the major industries are the Gooey Bar chocolate factory and gossip. Teresa, whose husband left when the girls were small, bakes delectables for the local eatery. Her best friend, Trudy, runs a beauty salon. No one is particularly happy, certainly not Ship, who despises her older sister and yearns after her best friend, Brian, the boy next door.
No family is without secrets, nor is any small town. But in Herringtown, Ship knows everyone's secrets. What the local priest refers to as her blessing is that she has hearing sharp as an animal's. So keen, in fact, that she must wear a special headset to muffle the sounds she hears so acutely they hurt. While most of the townsfolk view her as freakish or pathetic, Brian finds her anomalous gift entrancing. Just not as entrancing as Helen's large breasts and long blond hair.
Sullivan builds her novel on just this: Ship's hearing, her love for Brian and dislike of Helen, her desire to find her father and her yearning to uncover the few secrets (particularly about Brian's peculiar family) she hasn't overheard. What Sullivan does with this seemingly benign armature, however, is startling.
A series of events occur over Christmas which result in Brian's disappearance from Herringtown. Is he dead? Why won't his parents tell her where he's gone? Does it have to do with what Ship saw on Christmas Eve in the shack behind the Gooey factory or with the mysterious "Johnny" Brian won't tell her about?
Ship is maddened by these questions until Easter week when she hears something in the woods that no one else hears. What she discovers there twists the novel toward a shocking journey of betrayal and revelation as Ship comprehends for the first time the purpose of her gift of preternatural hearing.
Sullivan is careful in her use of magical realism; she doesn't overwhelm her audience nor test suspension of disbelief beyond its limits. Ship Sooner is an immensely likable, complex character who hovers above that chasm between childhood and adulthood that threatens to pull every adolescent into its merciless vortex. Ship Sooner is a strong, visceral, often violent novel, filled with the stuff of small-town life -- secrets and lies and the dangerous and sometimes tragic paths those things can lead one toward.
Victoria A. Brownworth is author and editor of more than 20 books. Her most recent collection is Leaving Her (Haworth Press / Alice Street Editions). Her collection of erotica, Bed, will be published later this year. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts, the nation's largest college for the creative and performing arts, in Philadelphia.