#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

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