It’s a wonderful thing to see a town that has for decades been derided get some recognition for the place full of heart that it actually is.
Riverhead is having a moment this year, after being named to Forbes “Best Places to Travel” list this February, and it’s likely that moment is going to last. Once a place is ‘discovered,’ it rarely becomes undiscovered.
June Gervais’s debut novel, “Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair,” just out in paperback this summer from Penguin Books, is a heartfelt story of love, work and family, and of finding your way out into the world. A town modeled after Riverhead, back in the scruffy days of the mid 1980s, is at its heart.
In the novel, the fictional town of Blue Claw, Long Island, at the mouth of the Bifurc River, “was the county seat in name only, buffered by farms, way out east where the island forked to the sea. People came here to go to court or to go to jail or to harvest potatoes; the river mills remained only as ruins. Even the decades-old shops on Midway Street were struggling now, as malls and multiplex theaters opened farther west.”
Ms. Gervais grew up in the Mastic-Shirley area before earning her MFA in writing and literature at Bennington College, then settled in Sound Beach.
She captures the struggles of living in this particular part of Long Island, at a particular moment in history (1986), with a masterful eye for detail.
In the novel, 18-year-old Gina has just graduated from high school, and she only has one dream — to become a tattoo artist in her brother’s downtown tattoo parlor, amid a struggling patch of storefronts, where she deals with the rejection she finds in this male-dominated career by doodling on a park bench near the dumpsters that attract seagulls alongside the river.
Her notebook overflows with unusual tattoo ideas — kick-ass merit badges and strange sea creatures, including a sad wing-finned trancefish in a bowl that is a metaphor for her life in this little town.
Gina meets an intriguing young woman named Anna, who’s apprenticed to a tarot card reader. Anna’s interests include “radical politics, rock shows, and baking,” and she promises to let Gina give her her first tattoo.
Inspired by her new friend, Gina spends the summer embarking on a new series of Victorian botanical drawings, designed to pass on secret messages — peach blossoms say “I am your captive,” while wild tansy says “I declare war on you.”
Older brother Dominic isn’t crazy about having his little sister in the shop, but he reluctantly brings her on if she’ll meet benchmarks set by an investor in the shop, who is also his love interest.
The inner world of a sketchbook doodler is an expansive one, brought to life on these pages, The locale this novel inhabits is also rendered with the aching perfection of memories of a Long Island upbringing — the drive up to the community college on the hill not far from downtown Blue Claw, seeking a place where she fits in, trips out to breezy Smith Point to seek out a hot dog vendor and dream of the future — of travel, or new careers, of balancing roots and hope and also purpose.
You could call this a feminist novel, and it is, but it never preaches, it just loves.
“What are you doing this for?” asks Gina’s mentor, Rick, an accomplished tattoo artist who works for her brother. “¿De qué sieve? — What purpose does it serve?”
When Gina helps Rick beautify his tia’s mastectomy scar, she begins to realize that she can choose to make purpose out of a career as a tattooer.
This transformative year, on the banks of the Bifurc in downtown Blue Claw, is one that many people who grew up here will intimately recognize as a variation on their own coming of age, and their own relationship to this island, with all its flaws and beauty, a home as well as an intolerable fishbowl, in a time when communication came in the form of letters and phone calls, and face-to-face conversation made all the difference the world.
In the end, the words of a classic sailor’s knuckle tattoo proves to be the glue that holds this family, and this fine debut novel together: “Hold Fast. Stay True.”
This is also a pretty good motto for the great town of Riverhead.
June Gervais will be signing copies of “Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair” and giving a sidewalk chalk demonstration at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, July 1 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. All are welcome. “Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair” is available everywhere books are sold. —BHY