The autumn can be a stark season at the windswept end of Long Island, as vacationers pack up and head back west and locals figure out if they have saved enough during the busy season to make it through the winter. The chill of the first nor’easters or tropical storms of the season highlight the ecological and economic tenuousness of this place.
Longtime Montauk resident and author Céline Keating’s newest novel, “The Stark Beauty of Last Things,” due out from She Writes Press Oct. 24, breathes with a deep knowledge of how peoples’ lives are shaped by the seasonal ebb and flow of the place she’s called home.
In painterly prose, she wraps a tale of intertwined relationships and the bonds of family and friendship into the landscape of Montauk.
This is Ms. Keating’s third novel, drawn from a well of lived experience in Montauk since she and her husband first bought an apartment there in 1988 and she became involved with the environmental group Concerned Citizens of Montauk. At the time, she was working as an editor at Business Week, but she would later go on to be a freelance writer, with a focus on music, a leader of writing workshops and an editor of the 2016 anthology “On Montauk: A Literary Celebration.”
“There was a sense of overdevelopment beginning then. We felt like things were changing, and we had a sense of how crucial it was to preserve what was there,” said Ms. Keating, who recently moved to Bristol, R.I., but still makes frequent trips back to be in the place she long called home.
The characters in “The Stark Beauty of Last Things,” a tale that shows the human side of the complexities of preserving land and the prospect of coastal retreat, are locals hanging onto their homes as their neighbors sell out to developers. They were percolating inside Ms. Keating for years, but it wasn’t until she came up with the idea of an outsider upending all of their lives that it began to congeal.
In the novel, Clancy, a one-time foster kid and now an insurance adjuster living in Astoria, visits a party at a restaurant on the Napeague Stretch just after Labor Day at the behest of a friend. He’s taken under the wing of a painter named Julienne, who runs her family’s oceanside hotel with her husband, Rob, after Clancy has a swimming mishap in the ocean under the full moon. That evening sets Clancy off on a year-long ordeal that puts him under suspicion of arson or even murder, setting him off on an internal exploration of the fears of abandonment that pervaded his childhood, as he becomes involved in the lives of Julienne and Rob; a fisherman named Billy and his girlfriend Molly, who recently arrived in town for a summer job packing fish, both of who are raising Billy’s younger brother, Jonah; and a brash young bartender, Theresa, with a big chip on her shoulder.
Julienne puts Clancy in touch with a retired police officer, Otto, who had once been a Big Brother to Otto and had taken him out fishing in Montauk as a child. Otto, who is dying, is shocked to see Clancy, and takes him to his backyard vegetable garden, showing him fistfuls of dirt, picking fresh tomatoes as a gift for Clancy, who crushes a marigold under his nose and savors the strange, spicy smell. Otto begs Clancy to help him reunite with Theresa, who is his daughter, to no avail. Not long after Clancy’s visit, Otto makes Clancy the executor of his will, with a series of unusual requests including that he cast the deciding vote among the local members of an LLC that owns a large and desirable piece of land.
“The last character I found was Clancy. There were four women in the first iteration. Having an outsider perspective allowed me to find the story line,” said Ms. Keating. “He occurred to me while I was in the dentist’s chair. I suddenly got a feeling about him and his background. I like to have some sense of direction when I begin to write, but not too much. I set myself a trap. I didn’t know how I was going to have Clancy resolve the question of the land.”
One of the things that draws Clancy into Montauk is the true sense of community among the locals, who in the book regularly pitch in with efforts from fighting wildfires to forming search parties, cutting downed trees out of the roadways and checking on neighbors after a storm.
“That’s one of the amazing things about Montauk, the incredible support everyone gave each other. It would always happen,” said Ms. Keating. “It’s such a tight-knit thing, and while so often there are issues with factionalism, the sense of community is still there. In places that don’t have that, or where people are not paying attention, that falls apart. In Montauk, if you pitched in and helped out, people did accept you as a local. There wasn’t an insular feeling that can happen in certain places.”
The landscape of Montauk is painted into these pages with delicate and loving brushstrokes, in breaks within the book that turn a naturalist’s eye to the changing seasons.
“Goldenrod grows in great profusion this fall, brightening the dunes along the ocean,” she writes of Clancy’s second autumn in Montauk. “Beach plums ripen, while in the swales of the nearby dunes, cranberries begin to form. Cloudless yellow sulphur butterflies flutter at the edge of the surf in a long, pale-gold ribbon.”
Julienne’s brushstrokes also paint this story, as the months go by and her stock-in-trade landscapes give way to paintings that preserve the memory of Montauk institutions as they are constantly changed by an ever-changing set of richer and richer summer partiers and their attendant developers, and from there into pure abstraction.
Attempting to paint cliff swallows in their native habitat, Julienne muses that the swallows are “like humans, when too many occupied the same habitat. An image for a painting flashed in her mind’s eye, a crowd of birds jumbled on top of each other, pecking in fury, superimposed over human beings crammed into a landscape.”
But one moody painting in the midst of her artistic upheaval, of Clancy walking toward the viewer through the fog on the desolate beach, tells the emotional story of this changing landscape. It’s titled “Stranger to the Deed.”
Ever present in this novel is the sense of loss felt by longtime Montauk residents — the tenuousness of living alongside the bay as storms flood properties held by generations of fishermen, the perils of selling out, the question of where one could possibly go when they have to leave a place that is already The End.
“For me, the challenge was ‘how do I capture this place that means so much to me,” said Ms. Keating. “At a certain point, I didn’t want it to end. I was enjoying the world of Montauk on paper.”
While this is a work of fiction, it’s drawn on Ms. Keating’s deep involvement with preservation. While in Montauk, Ms. Keating lived across from the Benson Reservation, a preserved piece of land that had once been slated to become 17 private homes, despite the fact that many residents of Montauk had rights to use the property in their deeds. She was also involved with the effort to preserve Shadmoor and Amsterdam Beach and Culloden.
“We unexpectedly ended up being like characters out of my book,” said Ms. Keating in a phone interview from her new home in Rhode Island. “We couldn’t afford to buy a house, and the apartment didn’t have quite what we needed. If we wanted to have a place to retire to, we were going to have to look somewhere else.”
But Ms. Keating comes back as often as she can.
“The things I love most aren’t really gone,” she said. “A lot of the wildness is disappearing. I miss the emptiness there used to be, from right after Labor Day. It was so isolated and desolated. I loved that. Rhode Island has some beautiful areas, but it doesn’t have that feeling of the edge of the world that I really crave. I like the bleakness, the sense of the elements and the weather. It’s some deep connection, and some spiritual sense.”
A local book launch for “The Stark Beauty of Last Things” will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28 hosted by the Montauk Historical Society at the Carl Fisher House at 44 Foxboro Road (Editor’s note: 4 p.m. is the new, correct time — please disregard the original time listed in our print edition). You can register to attend here.
Book launch parties are also planned at Barrington Books in Barrington, R.I. on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m., in a New York City virtual reading and launch on Friday, Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. at Shakespeare & Co. at 2020 Broadway in Manhattan, and a virtual reading on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. More detail are at celinekeating.com