By Susan Conley
Wolves, low-snouted and hungry, haunt Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods.” He startles at their howls, “as if a hundred demons had broke loose,” and parses the tree line for their silhouettes, though they never appear. The literature of American exploration is filled with the baying, prowling creatures — in novels like Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” and especially Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, where children learn to fear them — symbols of America’s wild spirit, pushed farther and farther from society by man and machinery. Wolves are a lost bit of America.
In Susan Conley’s “Landslide,” Jill Archer, a documentarian who lives on a small island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, refers to her two sons as “the wolves.” Seventeen-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Sam aren’t dangerous, per se, but there is a snappish, feral quality to them; they snarl and pick fights with her, whine for pasta or sandwiches, wander lonely just outside her periphery. Like Thoreau’s creatures, they’re remote and misunderstood, constantly out of reach.
Jill’s husband, Kit, one of the few remaining fishermen in their coastal town, has been hospitalized in Nova Scotia after the engine of the swordfishing boat he was working on exploded, breaking his right femur and potentially ending his career. In the wake of his accident, uncertainty destabilizes the entire family. Sam posts a photo of himself smoking pot and begins failing tests. Charlie burrows into a fantasy life with his girlfriend and her cozy family. Jill sputters and flails, wondering how to usher two boys through the gantlet of 21st-century masculinity.
Deterioration marks every aspect of “Landslide,” which is enveloping and warm, if slightly undercooked and sometimes flat-footed. The romance of Jill and Kit’s courtship — “the sweet, early years,” when they “used kerosene lamps and made clearings for the gardens and built the woodpile up” at their creaky island home — has had the polish rubbed off after almost two decades. Their love is baked in but negotiated: Kit is at sea for weeks, enamored of who he is when he commands a vessel and carries on his family lineage. Trauma has rubbed away at Sam’s sense of self; two years earlier, he watched his closest friend fall between the boards on a crumbling bridge and drown in the water below. Now he has what his counselor calls “a willingness to self-sabotage.” Their town is a picture postcard of iconic New England, except commerce has been erased by a collapsing ecosystem and industry. At one point their own dock even floats away.