by Kara Westerman
In 2008, a strange photograph appeared in the local papers. A frightening creature had washed ashore in Montauk that looked like it came from the shadows of our collective psyche — slimy and unfathomable, with teeth and claws and seemingly skinned. But, just as suddenly as the photos appeared, the corpse disappeared.
Some thought it was a sign of the end of times, others that it escaped from secret, mutant experiment at Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
The Montauk Monster, as the creature was dubbed, sparked the imagination of writer David Kozatch as he embarked on his multi-voiced novel “Off the East End,” which he just released as an ebook.
“The Montauk Monster for me was more about a community’s reaction to an event than solving a mystery per se. I don’t think that was a hoax. I think the scientists finally figured out what it was,” said David in a mid-May interview with The Beacon. “All the theories people had and how their views on what happened said more about them than the thing itself. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if, instead of something hideously ugly, what if something beautiful washed up?’”
In the first scene of the novel something beautiful does wash up. As dawn is breaking on Beach Lane in Wainscott, a surfer discovers the body of a young Latina woman lodged by the tide in between the rocks of the jetty. On an impulse he takes a photo of her face, “with a strange blurring of light around her head.” Before the photograph erupts onto social media, her body vanishes.
“Through this community’s struggle to make sense of the tragedy, the novel tells a uniquely American story about our perceptions and prejudices of beauty, tribal ties, and the desperate need to be found,” says David.
One of his characters in the novel expresses his theories about beauty: “Ultimately our perceptions of beauty are inextricably tied with our humanness. The dark side is this: because beauty often represents a desire that cannot be fulfilled — some of us make the mistake of thinking we can possess it.”
“It was challenging and fulfilling to hang the story on the idea of beauty and how that plays out among the characters’ motivations — that’s what excited me,” said David. “Each character in the book does crazy shit reacting in some way or another to beauty.”
The book also operates on a spiritual level with references to Catholicism, Judaism, and Native American religious systems.
“You can’t talk about beauty without talking about spirituality and religion. Even with saints – when someone becomes a saint it is called a beatification,” he said. “This book is about community and what drives most of the characters in the book to choose to live out here is, in one way or another, because of the beauty out here, and all of our relationships to this landscape are different.”
The wonderfully intricate book is a Rashomon of sorts. The narrative is driven by the characters’ unique views of the events, flashing back and forth in time.
The novel’s central character, Paul, a transplanted New Yorker who takes a job as a newspaper reporter out here, is our present tense witness seeking to solve the mystery – as he discovers clues so do we.
The book fits partly into the mystery genre, but is in no way a nail-biting thriller. The reader isn’t hijacked by a plot line, where characters whir by in a frantic race to solve the puzzle.
After Paul and his ex-wife have one last drunken tryst, Paul “awoke in the black, unsure of where he was. Like one of those Old Testament prophets, half starved under an endless sky, that dark vault strung with lights far out of the reach of mere mortals. After his eyes adjusted, he looked over at Jeannine’s jackknifed form. She was still naked, her warmth turned away from him.”
We get to savor this wonderful writing, especially the details of character’s relationships, the dialogue, and the descriptions of place. It is beautifully imagined and written, and for a first novel quite an achievement.
“I wanted to explore the idea of how you define community on the East End,” says David. “In a typical mystery, the writer works from inside out — starts with victim and draws a concentric circle around that person’s life to find the perpetrators of the crime. In my novel, since we don’t know who the victim is, I had to work from the outside in, to show the community. Paul is working with a broad canvas, since he has no other way to solve the mystery. And that canvas is what makes the story rich, not necessarily the whodunit aspect.”
David made some rules to keep his book fresh:
No scenes of cops at the station, because he couldn’t possibly add anything more to the material already out there.
All of the rich folks aren’t home, which let him use their empty houses as a sort of ghostly backdrop for the action.
Only one scene on a boat, since that is way too much of a cliché out here. Use the term The Hamptons as little as possible, except in his Amazon blurb. He wanted to sell books, after all.
Kara: How does it feel to finally have your book out in the world? Is it a relief?
David: Actually it feels like a kind of failure, in a way. There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing, but it feels good to have it somewhere in its entirety, so that people who ask about it can find it.
K: You’ve obviously been thinking in terms of character and story, observing details your whole life. Did you just wake up one day with these talents, these writing skills?
D: Writers are definitely outsiders, or perceive themselves to be, and I always felt like an outsider, an observer of life, for sure. My career in marketing research is all about observation.
K: This is your first book, pretty late in life. When did you actually say — hey, why couldn’t I do that?
D: I think after my second parent died, and I was essentially orphaned, something changed. Of course, then you think about your own mortality. All I know is that after my mother’s death in 2010 I must have given myself some kind of permission, because six months later I was writing.
K: One of my favorites was Daisy, the 15-year-old Latina girl with the blog. Did you have trouble writing in so many voices, from so many points of view?
D: My wife and sons have amazing bullshit meters, so she was invaluable in reading the book for me, and my sons edited my rap song, and alerted me when things were ‘lame’. Of course, I did some research so that I wasn’t totally off-base, but it’s not that hard for me to put myself into others’ shoes. There’s always something to relate to. You can always call up your own experiences.
The East End community that David describes so expertly is represented by a myriad of characters…Bonackers, organic farmers, real estate agents, surfers, cops, builders, Shinnecocks, Latinos – not exactly the usual characters that crop up in a Hamptons mystery. Each character in the book is linked to the dead and missing young woman, Maria, who we glimpse only in short flashback “Ave Maria” passages. To each person or group, Maria represents something quite different, the most striking being the growing group who gather at the beach with flowers to preserve the place where she was found as the shrine of a saint.
K: I noticed, apart from the careful and beautiful language and imagery that you have a great respect for all of your characters, and a lack of moral judgement.
D: When I started this book in 2011, I was worried about whether I was overdoing some of the more colorful characters in the book, like the white racist, Charlie Conrad, the lawyer with political aspirations who makes the gang-related claim based on something he overheard while talking to police. Just like Trump this week, he blurted out info that was meant to be secret.
I always want to push boundaries, but I wondered if this guy could be believable – out here. Six years later and this guy is not only believable, but… Almost everything I wrote about 6 years ago that I thought might be too far out – gang crime, overdosing teens, crash houses, racist demonstrations against the immigrant community – I have since found a lot of evidence of in my research.
Every person and place in the book is based in realty. I don’t want to be sued for libel, but there is someone out here, believe it or not, who makes lists of which homes have multi-families living in them. It’s usually Latino families, and sometimes their mailboxes have been known to explode. I hope I offered both sides of that issue in my book.”
Although It doesn’t come crashing out of the gate, I promise readers this is a book you will think and talk about long after you have read it. The book has no cliché wrap-up scene where all the loose ends are neatly tied. Although David did experiment with many endings over the years, he felt it was more subtle and apropos to end the story exactly where it began, on the beach with a dead girl, and to leave some things pending.
It’s not that the reader doesn’t know in the end what took place, or how the characters were involved – its that the way each character relates to the mystery is intricately tied to the rest. There is no simple answer to anything here. There is love found, redemption claimed, guilt admitted, but in the end everyone is to blame and no-one is to blame – just like life!
The Kindle edition of “Off the East End” is available for download here.
Kara is a published fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator, and leader of Amagansett Writer’s Collective. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.