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Book Review: Into the Ocean by Stanton McCaffrey

Something different in The Gutter this Monday:

Wherein I review Stanton's McCaffrey's new noir story.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Ocean by Stanton McCaffrey

I’m intrigued by stories where the setting is treated as much a part of the cast as the main characters. Where characters reside has an influence on how they act, decisions they make, and, ultimately, their fates. 

Stanton McCaffrey’s Into the Ocean offers Madison Park, New Jersey as its setting. Once a budding northeastern hub of industry and lofty competitor to Flint and Detroit in the car manufacturing game, it met hard times in the nineties. Eventually, outsourcing took away factories and jobs. Unemployment spiked and, with it, drug use and violent crime. History fills in the rest.

Brett and Sarah Bernauer return to this dilapidated Madison Park after the death of their mother. Theirs is a contentious relationship, with mom being the last link providing them with any decent reason to keep in touch. Now, they’re back where they started: a place that took so much and returned nothing.  

Brett’s existence is a lonely one. Occupying a decayed trailer in Scranton, PA, his only companion is a fat cat named Al. His main source of nutrition is a steady diet of protein shakes. Brett is a roof repairman by day and enforcer by night. Nate, the owner of the roof repair service, also moonlights as a purveyor of street justice. Guy viciously beat his wife and posts bail the next morning? Brett and Nate will crush a few of his fingers to make sure he thinks a little harder before venting his drunken aggression.

Sarah lives in Brooklyn where she owns and operates a small-scale thrift store. We get the idea that, unlike her brother, hers is a slightly more complacent existence. Perhaps not a huge financial success, she is happy to just be able to get by on her own, without anyone’s help. Brett, on the other hand, is an angry guy harboring serious resentment toward the world for the shitty hands his family has been dealt over the years. Nate noticed this quick anger and used it in his favor, turning Brett into reliable, vicious underworld muscle.

Once brother and sister return to Madison Park, everything starts turning to shit. This is the type of place where locals stick around forever. Your teammate on the high school basketball team might turn out to be your partner on the local police force. And because almost everyone knows one another, it’s easy to call in favors and shake some dirty hands.  

The lines blur all across Madison Park and at the blurred edge between good and bad stands Norman Acardi, a townie turned cop who’s shaking too many hands on either side to keep track of. Dan Nichols is also a townie turned cop, but his intentions are all good, reading right through Acardi’s bid to become police union president.

Everyone in Madison Park has demons and as soon as Brett and Sarah step back inside its limits, their past comes lunging at them, knife unsheathed, aimed at their ribs. 

The narrative jumps back and forth between the nineties and the present day to reveal what turned scrappy, weakling Brett Bernauer into a muscle-bound hothead everyone, including Nate, are always trying to keep under control. We learn of a brutal attack Sarah survived, (barely), at the hands of certain townies, (guess who?). 

Now, as aggressors are wont to do, they are back in the picture, in an attempt to harass Sarah and Brett into keeping quiet. Of course, we know Brett is going to pop off. What’s fun to witness is how McCaffrey slowly releases Sarah’s harbored resentment until she herself finally lets her temper fly and we can make the comparison between brother and sister.

Try as they might to be two completely different people, in the end they are siblings, who love each other and are bound by the chaotic rollercoaster of their lives.  

McCaffrey knows the topography of New Jersey and isn’t afraid to depict its seedy elements, but does so with the reverence and care of a proud resident. By the end of the story, you’re left wondering: has the town led to the downfall of its residents or vice-versa?

Into the Ocean doesn’t offer a perfect hero. It doesn’t even give us a completely satisfying or rooted resolution. And maybe that’s the point. 

Leaving a place may be temporarily cathartic, but the place, the source of so much contention, continues to exist. Like a specter, it patiently awaits your inevitable return. The rest—whether you succumb or overcome those resident demons—is on you. Whatever the result, good or bad, you’ve been shaped. Brett and Sarah have left Madison Park, but Madison Park will never release them.

Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science. His stories have been featured in Acidic Fiction, Heater Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, and Between Worlds.

Review by: Hector Duarte, Jr.