• by Sarah Teach •
Money, power, lust and blood converge in Nantucket Sawbuck, a novel from island-based writer Steven Axelrod. Instant millionaire Preston Lomax is the kind of guy who cheats on his wife with her own sisters, gleefully stiffs his business associates, impregnates then abandons his housemaids, and threatens to sue the town of Nantucket into bankruptcy. But when Lomax turns up dead—viciously murdered in his own bed inside his Eel Point McMansion—you may find yourself feeling a tiny bit sorry for the old chap. Whether you thoroughly loathe Lomax or think he is a misunderstood commerce mastermind, you share one thing with other readers: everyone badly wants Nantucket’s Chief of Police Henry Kennis to figure out what happened.
Running the gamut from fight scenes to love scenes, Nantucket Sawbuck will be a hit with any reader who appreciates a classic Hollywood arc. And for Nantucketers, the story literally hits home. Axelrod nods at the garishness that often accompanies newly acquired wealth, and the way Nantucket assesses those that exude it. (The author describes antagonist Preston Lomax’s gaudily made-up widow like so: “A lot of thought had gone into her presentation, but no taste.”) There is also some light shed on painful truths about island life, including the isolation of winter, the stress of a feast or famine market, and the fact that Nantucket’s summer months do not tolerate relaxation by working locals.
Nantucket Sawbuck, a first-person narrative from the perspective of the fictional Chief Kennis, launched Axelrod’s series of Henry Kennis Mysteries, all of which will be set on Nantucket. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, was released last January.
Kennis is not just a washashore (someone who lives on the island but was not born here), but a West Coast import to boot. As we know him in Nantucket Sawbuck, he is a hero whose flaws are slight. Presumably, more of his humanity will be bared as the series progresses. We don’t know much about Kennis’ background except that he has two kids with his materialistic ex-wife, and he left his job in Los Angeles on terms that were not stellar. It seems he has been jaded by a previous life and is now striving to remake himself. We respect Kennis’ sound conscience and his desire to press an issue until its resolution. Though not immune to the temptations dangled by his powerful position, Kennis is ultimately the kind of policeman we would want solving a crime that occurred in our own backyard. Because all of the chief’s thoughts and reactions flow out of him so naturally, you get the feeling that Axelrod sees Kennis as some version of himself, or vice versa.
With dense verbal illustrations, reading this book is like watching a movie. You can feel the brush of a character’s bed sheet on your leg; you almost squint at the morning sunshine reflecting in a character’s kitchen. The dialogue is interesting while maintaining functionality and conversational authenticity. Axelrod is not verbose, but he poetically packs meaning into few words like pungent little sardines into a can, generously dappled with similes that pull you into the world he has crafted, where emotions are served raw.
Like other island-based stories that are filled with real local names and places, Nantucket Sawbuck gives you a curious consciousness of your own presence on the island. You exist here, inside your own version of this island, alongside another rendering of Nantucket that an author has created. Every time you experience a book or movie or play set here, you plunk yet another new Nantucket into the pile in your head. What makes one adaptation of Nantucket more real than another? It’s fun to think about, and a treat you only get when enjoying a story set on Nantucket. This book paints an especially rich depiction of the island from the working person’s perspective.
In creating this version of Nantucket—some of which exists inside an unfinished home—Axelrod has gleaned invaluable insight through his day job as a house painter. “The most literary ideas come out of real life, the desire to distill and express my actual experiences.” As Axelrod signs his book with paint-splattered hands, he says, “Painting and writing are an excellent match. Repetitive physical labor frees the mind, and I often end a day of disc-sanding or sash painting with just the idea I need for the next morning’s work. I write from about 5 to 7:30 a.m. Partly that’s because the integument between dreaming and reality is thinnest when you first wake up, before all the mundane stressful demands of the day begin.”
At 306 pages, it is surprising that Nantucket Sawbuck is such a fast read. We end it with an epilogue that beckons Kennis out on another case: this time, someone is threatening to bomb the annual Boston Pops concert on Jetties Beach! As Chief Kennis picks up the pieces of our first adventure with him, Axelrod prepares to whisk us away again.
If you’re up for a Nantucket-based novel with some substance, grab an Axelrod. Find the author’s books at Mitchell’s Book Corner at 54 Main Street.