By the Book: Cruising the Mermaid Coast for Love

The Mermaid Coast is a good example of ‘not judging a book by its cover.’ A scrimshaw mermaid sits on a black background, overhead, title letters drip blood red and the back cover suggests a potboiler romance-fantasy about mermaids: “It is only in the last 200 years that man has stopped believing in them. Perhaps we shouldn’t have…”

The opening pages, datelined “East Hampton, Tuesday, June 15, 11:50 p.m.,” however, suggest that, appearances to the contrary, this fun debut novel by East Hampton resident Robert Woolcott is no chick lit. The writing is tight, the dialogue believable, the point-of-view male, the setting a judicious mix of regional and international locales, and the folklore evocative as art and literature, including William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Mermaid.” Woolcott surprises with savvy sections on Montauk fishing and new technology, including details about the Lowrance High Definition GPS Fishfinder. The Mermaid Coast turns out to be an entertaining mystery with diverse content about sea creatures that pulls up nuggets from the Bible and Native American culture. It also nods to European, African, Polynesian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese myths about “mermen.” Who knew that Cornwall was the “original, all-time mother lode of mermaid sightings?”

Woolcott gives play to cryptozoology (the study of “animals whose existence has not been substantiated”) as well as to studies of real-life arcane subjects such as the endangered coelacanth, a rare species of fish that resembles a mammal. And he crafts enough verisimilitude about mermaids in religious history to generate a willing suspension of disbelief about their coming ashore in 21st century East Hampton. It seems they make landfall every 30 years in order to mate with humans and thus keep up the line. As a professor friend of the book’s hero speculates, might not “hormone-induced metamorphosis” cause these siren-like sea creatures to adapt in order to spawn? It’s an engaging hypothesis and one that Woolcott fashions with an admixture of scientific cynicism and inventive fancy, not to mention humor and sex.

And what a neat beginning. Alec Costner, walking along the beach after work one night, hears screams coming from a millionaire’s mansion. He sees a naked woman run into the ocean. He calls out and swims after her, but thinks he also sees (could it be?) two other females emerge from the waves and pull the woman out with them into the deep. He thinks the woman he saw was, ’er, kind of shiny. When he goes to the house to see what happened, he discovers a dead body and finds himself a murder suspect. Complications mount as the murdered man’s beautiful sister arrives from Portugal (hmmm…she has this strange exotic look and likes life cold and wet). Alec finds himself falling in love.

The narrative also factors in the little-known history of slave ships coming into Sag Harbor disguised as whaling boats (“most of the Native Americans in this area had African blood”). East End readers will likely have fun with local references, including loving descriptions of Hamptons beaches and dunes and a shout out to Mary’s Marvelous in Amagansett for their muffins. A climactic scene takes place in the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, and protagonist Alec Costner (no relation to Kevin, he notes) tends bar at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton.

The Mermaid Coast is not without sly criticism about The Hamptons: “In winter, the rich came out on weekends from Manhattan, and dined at the American Hotel…[on] $50 entrées—while down the street, in the cemetery of the Old Whalers’ Church, the homeless huddled against the frost-covered gravestones, waiting for the summer jobs to start up again.”

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